A lawyer defending an alleged commander in Uganda’s shadowy Lord’s Resistance Army accused of crimes including murder, sexual slavery and using child soldiers cast him on Tuesday as a victim of the rebel group and its brutal leader, Joseph Kony.
In his opening statement at the International Criminal Court trial of Dominic Ongwen, defense lawyer Krispus Ayena told judges that Ongwen was abducted as a 9-year-old child, plunged into an environment of extreme brutality and effectively stripped of his free will.
Ayena said that Ongwen “did not possess a mind of his own save for the survival instinct” he developed to navigate the harsh conditions in the LRA.
Prosecutors allege that Ongwen is a former child soldier who turned into a murderous commander.
Kony, also indicted by the court in 2005, remains at large despite an intensive man hunt aimed at capturing him.
The case against Ongwen, now aged about 40, poses difficult questions for judges about whether a boy snatched on his way to primary school and raised in a cult-like group renowned for its brutality can also be considered a perpetrator of crimes.
Ongwen’s trial started in December 2016 when he pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, rape, sexual enslavement and using child soldiers during the LRA insurgency in northern Uganda.
He is specifically charged with commanding an LRA unit that launched attacks on camps for displaced people in northern Uganda in 2003 and 2004.
At the start of the trial, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told judges that Ongwen rose swiftly through the ranks because of his reputation as a ruthless killer.
She said that while Ongwen’s traumatic past could be a mitigating factor for judges considering a sentence if he is convicted, it “cannot begin to amount to a defense or a reason not to hold him to account for the choice that he made: The choice to embrace the murderous violence used by the LRA and make it a hallmark of the attacks carried out by his soldiers.”
Ongwen’s lawyer disagreed, arguing that his upbringing in the LRA and devotion to its “demiGod” leader, Kony, absolves him of criminal responsibility.
“Once a victim, always a victim,” Ayena said. “One cannot be a victim and, still in the grips of the same system that victimized him, become a perpetrator.”