January 8, 2015 / 7:49 PM / 3 years ago

Fate unclear for LRA commander held for crimes against humanity

KAMPALA/ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The capture of Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen is a major success against the notorious rebel group, but it remains uncertain whether and how the former child soldier might face trial.

Options range from a case at the International Criminal Court, where he is wanted for crimes against humanity, to prosecution or even an amnesty back home.

His eventual fate is likely to have an impact on whether the remnants of the Ugandan rebel group also end Africa’s longest-running armed uprising, which has killed thousands.

Earlier this week, U.S. forces helping track the LRA said a man claiming to be Ongwen had given himself up in the Central African Republic. Uganda said he was in the custody of its forces and would be flown to Uganda.

“Once he’s here then a decision will be taken on what to do with him,” government spokesman Ofwono Opondo told Reuters.

The LRA rose up against the government in northern Uganda in the late 1980s.

Headed by Joseph Kony, a former choirboy who claimed to be guided by spirits only he could hear, it earned a reputation for brutality, abducting children to serve as fighters and sex slaves and mutilating prisoners.

Many of the victims were from the Acholi community the LRA claimed to be defending against the Ugandan government.

In 2003, Uganda referred the LRA to the newly-created ICC. The warrants unsealed two years later for Kony, Ongwen and two other commanders were the first issued by the court in The Hague.

By then, the LRA had largely left Uganda to roam lawless areas of South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.

JUSTICE AT HOME?

Now Ongwen is in custody, rights groups insist he should be sent to The Hague.

“Authorities should seize that opportunity to see that justice is done and he’s surrendered to the ICC,” said Elise Keppler, assistant director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice program.

It is far from certain that will happen, however.

Washington is not a member of the ICC, though it has cooperated with the court to varying degrees in the past.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, meanwhile, has become a vocal opponent of the ICC. He complains it unfairly targets Africans and has called on African nations to pull out of the court.

Ugandan officials have already made clear the ICC is not the only option they are considering for Ongwen.

“When Museveni referred the LRA to the ICC he made a mistake ... Ongwen should be tried here and not anywhere else,” said Christopher Acire, an Acholi member of Uganda’s parliament.

Uganda could mount a legal challenge to the ICC, claiming it is willing and able to try Ongwen on charges substantially similar to the those he faces at The Hague.

Libya and Ivory Coast both attempted this unsuccessfully in the cases of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late ruler Muammar Gaddafi, and former Ivorian first lady Simone Gbagbo, who also face charges before the court.

AMNESTY?

There is a chance Ongwen may face no trial at all.

Under an amnesty law passed in 2000, Uganda has pardoned over 13,000 former rebels.

It is not clear if Ongwen, as an ICC-indictee, would qualify for this. He currently faces no criminal charges in Uganda.

Now 34, Ongwen was himself kidnapped by the LRA as a 10-year-old walking to school, and went on to rise through its ranks.

This past could see him benefit from the Acholi community’s readiness to pardon ex-fighters, especially those forced to commit crimes as children.

Some Acholi figures say his crimes, alleged to include murder and enslavement, have tested the willingness to forgive.

“There is a strong feeling that some people need to be brought to book for their actions ... He’s actually an adult and known for being ferocious,” said Michael Otim, an Acholi who heads the Uganda office of the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Up to 250 LRA fighters remain at large.

“It could have a huge impact on whether LRA fighters that remain within the group are encouraged to come out of the bush or are very discouraged,” said Paul Ronan, director of The Resolve advocacy group.

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Nairobi, Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam and Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by David Lewis and Andrew Roche

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