Ugandan gets 25-year prison sentence for war crimes

The International Criminal Court (ICC) today sentenced Ugandan Dominic Ongwen to 25 years of imprisonment after he was found guilty for a total of 61 crimes comprising crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed in Northern Uganda between July 1, 2002 and December 31, 2005.

The period of his detention between January 4, 2015 and May 6, 2021 will be deducted from the total time of imprisonment imposed on him.

The sentence may be appealed by either party to the proceedings.

Judge Bertram Schmitt, Presiding Judge, read a summary of the Trial Chamber’s decision.

He highlighted that the Chamber was confronted in the present case with a unique situation. It is confronted with a perpetrator who willfully and lucidly brought tremendous suffering upon his victims.

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 member and leader.

The Chamber decided to give certain weight in mitigation to the circumstances of Ongwen’s childhood, his abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) at a very young age and his early stay with the LRA.

The Chamber rejected the defense arguments, recalling its analysis of evidence in the Judgment issued on February 4, and considered that the mitigating circumstances of substantially diminished mental capacity and duress are not applicable.

The Chamber also rejected defense arguments concerning traditional justice mechanisms, noting that there exists no possibility under the Statute to replace a term of imprisonment with traditional justice mechanisms, or to incorporate traditional justice mechanisms into the sentence in any other way. 

It also noted that Acholi traditional justice mechanisms are not in widespread use, to the extent that they would replace formal justice, and that they are reserved to members of the Acholi community, meaning that their use would mean that some victims belonging to other ethnic groups would be excluded.

The Chamber emphasized that reconciliation, whatever its form, is a process in which victim participation is essential, and noted that it is clear that many victims of the crimes committed by Ongwen do not support the idea of traditional justice in the present case, and that they have also criticized the fact that submissions in this regard were made to the Chamber without consulting them. 

The Chamber analysed one-by-one the gravity of each of the 61 crimes for which Ongwen was convicted, finding several aggravating circumstances applicable to some or even most crimes.

Aggravating circumstances included particular cruelty, multiplicity of victims, the victims being particularly defenseless, and discrimination on political grounds and discrimination against women.

The Chamber imposed individual sentences for each crime, taking the mitigating circumstance of Ongwen’s childhood and abduction by the LRA into due account.

The highest individual sentences were of 20 years. Other sentences pronounced for individual crimes were of 14 or 8 years of imprisonment.

In its determination of the joint sentence for all the crimes for which Ongwen was convicted, the Chamber declined to sentence him to life imprisonment, considering his individual circumstances and in order to envisage a concrete prospect for him to eventually re-build his life.

The Chamber then, by majority, decided to impose a joint sentence of 25 years of imprisonment.

The majority, composed of Judge Bertram Schmitt and Judge Péter Kovács, is of the view that this joint sentence adequately reflects the strongest condemnation by the international community of the crimes committed by Ongwen and acknowledges the great harm and suffering caused to the victims.

At the same time, the majority held that such a joint sentence acknowledges Ongwen’s unique personal history and safeguards the prospect of his successful social rehabilitation and, consequently, the concrete possibility of future re-integration into society.

Judge Raul Cano Pangalangan appended a partly dissenting opinion on this matter as he would have sentenced Dominic Ongwen to a total period of imprisonment of 30 years.

The Chamber also issued today an order for submissions on reparations.

It emphasized that the right of victims to reparations is also an essential part of the system of justice at the court, and stated that it will push forward the reparation stage of the proceedings with vigor and the utmost care.