By Samuel Egadu Okiror
I am amused and puzzled by the warning issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) about witness intimidation and interference in northern Uganda. The warning comes ahead of the eagerly awaited trial of Dominic Ongwen, the former commander of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). He is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The local media reported on the comments of the ICC Director for Jurisdiction, Complementary and Cooperation Division, Phakiso Machochoko. I think his warning surprised and confused everyone in northern Uganda, particularly in the Acholi sub region, which was the epicentre of the rebellion between government troops and the LRA rebels. The people in northern Uganda suffered serious atrocities and won’t waste time thinking about intimidating anyone who wishes to testify against Ongwen.
Let me quote Machochoko, as reported in the local media: “people should refrain from intimidating witnesses because it is the duty of the prosecution to protect them. As the ICC, we give a clear warning that the prosecution will not hesitate to take appropriate action against those interfering with the witnesses.”
The ICC shouldn’t start mixing issues, playing mind games and taking war victims for a ride. The warning seems a mockery and a scapegoat route for the former internally displaced persons in the region who want to see the administration of justice. The debate in northern Uganda remains prosecution, forgiveness (amnesty) and pardon for Ongwen, not intimidation of witnesses.
The ICC prosecution team has repeatedly alleged that in the Kenyan cases there has been witness bribery and intimidation. But the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta are totally different from Ongwen’s case. In Uganda, the government has pledged total commitment and cooperation with ICC.
President Yoweri Museveni, one of Africa’s leading critics of the ICC, agreed to the transfer of Ongwen to The Hague after his January surrender in the Central African Republic (CAR). For heaven’s sake, where can Ongwen, who lived most of his entire life in the bush, get resources and machinery to influence or intimidate witnesses? He doesn’t have support or a following in the region. A large cross section of Acholi politicians support his trial. So where are these ICC concerns and fears coming from?
I have never heard any of Uganda’s prosecution officials complain about witness intimidation or interference in the stalled trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a mid-LRA commander at the country’s High Court Special International Crimes Division (ICD). The issue has been the unwillingness of witnesses to participate in the prosecution and trials.
Maybe the ICC prosecution team lacks credible and sufficient evidence to pin down Ongwen, whose scenario is complicated. He is both a victim and a perpetrator. He was abducted at the age of 14 years, conscripted into the rebellion and forced to commit atrocities against his will, possibly for fear of his life. The government failed to protect him. Let’s wait to hear his true story when he steps into the dock to testify.
An ICC team is currently canvassing northern Uganda to gather more and fresh evidence against the accused. They need to do thorough investigations, interview witnesses, collect verifiable data and get credible witnesses to fly to The Hague to present evidence and testify in order for them to secure Ongwen’s conviction. Period.
They shouldn’t only base their case on the Lukodi mascara in Gulu district. We need to see them in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, where the LRA committed and continues to carry attacks, killings and abductions against innocent civilians. They shouldn’t waste their time on the non-issue of witness intimidation and interference.
Samuel Egadu Okiror is a Ugandan journalist based in the capital, Kampala. He covered the LRA rebellion, peace process and continues to report on international justice. This is personal opinion and reaction.
Photo: Dominic Ongwen at the ICC (Peter de Jong/ANP)