By Elizabeth McNamara
Rebel commander Dominic Ongwen has appeared at the International Criminal Court for charges of war crimes. Ongwen is a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, captured earlier this month in the Central African Republic. He is charged with seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including enslavement and murder.
The Lord’s Resistance Army, also called the Lord’s Resistance Movement, is an extremist Christian militant group or cult operating mostly in northern Uganda, South Sudan, and parts of the Central African Republic.
The LRA has been accused of severe human rights violations. The group is allegedly responsible for widespread murder, mutilation, and abduction of children to be used as soldiers and sex slaves. In 1990, Ongwen was abducted at the age of 10 on his way to school by the LRA and was consequently indoctrinated as a militant of the group.
Ongwen is the commander of the Sinia Brigade, one of the four brigades of the LRA. In 2005, he was reported killed in combat with the Uganda People’s Defense Force, and the identity of the body was confirmed by former LRA commanders. However, the ICC reported in July 2005 that the fingerprints of the body did not match those of Ongwen.
The LRA commander was captured by African troops, supported by U.S. forces, on January 5, 2015. The LRA is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S., who deployed 100 special forces in 2011 to support the thousands of African troops searching for LRA commanders.
After Ongwen’s capture, the Ugandan government initially insisted it wanted to try him in the country, but the ICC, who has had an arrest warrant for Ongwen since 2005, will try the commander. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, had originally asked the ICC to investigate the LRA, but has been critical of the court recently, accusing it of unfairly targeting African leaders.
Ongwen is the lowest ranking of the five LRA commanders for whom the ICC issued arrest warrants in 2005. Two of them remain at large: Okot Odhiambo and Joseph Kony.
Kony, the founder of the LRA, has said that he intends to install a government in Uganda based on the Ten Commandments. He is thought to be hiding somewhere in the bush, specifically the dense jungle between South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is being pursued by the armies of all four African countries, as well as U.S. special forces.
In 2013, the U.S. offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest or capture of Joseph Kony, Dominic Ongwen, or Okot Odhiambo. The U.S. also announced last year that it would be sending military aircraft and more special forces to track down the LRA commanders.
Ongwen appeared in the ICC on January 26, and was not required to enter a plea. Judge Ekaterina Trendafivola scheduled his next appearance for August 24, when hearings will be held to determine whether Ongwen should stand trial.
ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda stated that Ongwen’s transfer to the court “brings us one step closer to ending the LRA’s reign of terror.”