Dominic Ongwen. Picture: REUTERS
Dominic Ongwen. Picture: REUTERS

The Hague — A Ugandan warlord must be acquitted of war crimes because he himself was a brutalised former child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), defence lawyers told the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday.

Dominic Ongwen, 43, faces 70 charges arising from a reign of terror in northern Uganda in the early 2000s as part of the sinister rebel LRA, led by its fugitive chief, Joseph Kony.

His attorneys told the court in The Hague that Ongwen cannot be held responsible as he was kidnapped by the LRA at the age of nine and "spent nearly 27 years in the grip of the LRA" as a "slave".

"Dominic Ongwen was a victim rather than a perpetrator. Once a victim, always a victim," his lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo told the court.

The accused did not possess a mind of his own, save for the survival instinct he developed to navigate the harsh conditions of the bush

"Children abducted by the LRA, the accused included, are used in the war in northern Uganda and grew up in one of the most brutal environments ever … known to humanity," he added.

"The accused did not possess a mind of his own, save for the survival instinct he developed to navigate the harsh conditions of the bush."

Ongwen sat impassively in court listening to the proceedings through headphones as his lawyers detailed the "mindboggling" violence of Kony’s LRA. A self-styled mystic and prophet, Kony launched a rebellion more than three decades ago seeking to impose his version of the Ten Commandments in northern Uganda. The UN says the LRA has slaughtered more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children since it was set up in the mid-1980s.

The movement also crossed borders to sow terror in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Prosecutors say Ongwen was a "ferocious" and "enthusiastic" senior LRA commander in charge of Kony’s infamous Sinai brigade, which among many crimes abducted young girls and women to serve as domestic workers and sex slaves.

At its opening in 2016 a gruesome video depicting the aftermath of an LRA attack on a refugee camp was shown at the trial, with images of disembowelled children and charred bodies of babies in shallow graves.

In another attack against the Odek refugee camp in 2004, Ongwen instructed his troops that "nothing should be left alive", prosecutors said, citing radio intercepts.

However the defence has argued that Ongwen is the first accused before the ICC to face the very same charges — war crimes and crimes against humanity — of which he is also a victim.

"Once captured as a victim, the accused was indoctrinated and made to live by the strict edicts of the LRA based on spiritualism or die — period," the lawyer said.

Kony, who remains at large, used his supposed role as a spirit medium to "control the minds of child soldiers", coupled with a pitilessly brutal regime, Odongo told the court.

LRA child soldiers were "cowed into total submission by excruciating pain, by beatings and exposure to some of the most gruesome torture and killings". Some were made to kill their parents as part of a "cleansing process".

Ongwen should be given credit, he said, for surrendering to US special forces hunting Kony in the Central African Republic. He was transferred to the ICC shortly afterwards.

The lawyer added that the Ugandan government had not brought the case before the court in The Hague "with clean hands".

"This being a political case, those who have testified for the prosecution case are well aware that they have to go back and live in a state that has every reason to hide their role in the atrocities on trial in this court," Odongo said.

He also hit out at the international community and the ICC itself for failing to bring Kony to justice.

"The prosecutors should be looking for Kony, not Dominic Ongwen, the victim," he said.

More than 4,000 victims are taking part in Ongwen’s trial, which began more than a decade after a warrant for his arrest was issued in 2005.