The International Criminal Court on Thursday sentenced Dominic Ongwen, a Ugandan child soldier who became a commander in the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), to 25 years in jail for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Ongwen, 45, whose nom de guerre was “White Ant” was found guilty in February of 61 charges, including murders, rapes and sexual enslavement during a reign of terror in the early 2000s by the LRA, led by the fugitive Joseph Kony.
“In light of the gravity of the crimes that you committed, the Chamber sentences you to a total period of imprisonment of 25 years,” presiding judge Bertram Schmitt said on Thursday.
The case revived traumatic memories of the rebel group’s brutal rampage across East Africa, but also cast light on the plight and moral responsibility of child soldiers.
Prosecutors had asked for a 20-year term, saying Ongwen’s own past, as a schoolboy abducted by the LRA, justified a lower sentence than the maximum of 30 years to life allowed by the ICC.
The defence had sought a 10-year term for Ongwen for attacks by his men on refugee camps in northern Uganda.
Victims of his crimes had asked the court to impose the full life sentence.
Schmitt said the court was faced with a “unique situation” with the case, saying Ongwen was both a criminal and a victim.
“The Chamber… is confronted with a perpetrator who willfully brought tremendous suffering upon his victims,” he said.
“However, it is also confronted with a perpetrator who himself had previously endured extreme suffering himself at the hands of the group of which he later became a prominent leader.”
In Ongwen’s home district of Amuru in northern Uganda, many said they found the verdict unjust.
“He is now going to suffer, and his children too. But where was the state when he was being abducted while a child?” asked Joe Kakanyero, 56, Ongwen’s stepmother who has been looking after 12 of his children.
“He is suffering alone and no other person is blamed for his predicament,” she said.
Ongwen surrendered to US special forces who were hunting Kony in the Central African Republic in early 2015 and he was transferred to the ICC to face trial.
“He has been in jail for long and now they are giving him 25 years more. This ends his life on Earth,” David Johnson Onelalit, 38, said as he counselled other relatives.
“He (Ongwen) called me last week on telephone telling me he has 35 children but some of them are yet to be traced… but I trace them and feed them with what?” he said, throwing his arms in the air in desperation.
The LRA was founded three decades ago by former Catholic altar boy and self-styled prophet Kony, who launched a bloody rebellion in northern Uganda against President Yoweri Museveni.
Its brutal campaign to set up a state based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments left more than 100,000 people dead and 60,000 children abducted, eventually spreading to Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.
During the trial, Ongwen told the court that the LRA forced him to eat beans soaked with the blood of the first people he was made to kill as part of a brutal initiation following his own abduction aged nine.
“I am before this international court with so many charges, and yet I am the first victim of child abduction. What happened to me, I do not even believe happened to Jesus Christ,” Ongwen said.
Judges said in their verdict in February that Ongwen personally ordered his soldiers to carry out massacres of more than 130 civilians at the Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok refugee camps between 2002 and 2005.
Civilians were locked in their homes and burned to death or beaten during the massacres, while mothers were made to transport the LRA’s loot, forcing them to abandon their infant children by the roadside.
Ongwen was also the first person convicted by the ICC of the crime of forced pregnancy, for abducting and raping so-called “wives”, some of whom were underage.
Prosecution lawyer Colin Black said that Ongwen’s own history as a child soldier “does not in any way diminish the gravity of the crimes, nor does it diminish his criminal culpability.”
“Nevertheless we consider them to be exceptional individual circumstances of a kind that warrant a significant reduction in sentence,” he argued.