Former Commander of Lord’s Resistance Army Convicted of War Crimes

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Former Commander of Lord’s Resistance Army Convicted of War Crimes

KAMPALA, Uganda—The International Criminal Court on Thursday found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity a former child soldier who went on to become the second-in-command of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the notorious rebel group that for decades inflicted terror across Central Africa.

Dominic Ongwen, who was the group’s most senior commander after Joseph Kony, is the first former LRA leader to be brought to justice for the crimes of the cultlike group that, since the 1980s, has abducted thousands of women and children in Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

The group’s fighters often hacked their victims to death with machetes. Mr. Kony remains at large, despite the Obama administration in 2011 dispatching commandos from the Special Forces to help local armies kill or capture him.

In northern Uganda, which saw some of the heaviest combat during the insurgency, locals followed the proceedings at The Hague, Netherlands-based court on big screens erected on football fields by the court’s outreach office. Due to coronavirus restrictions, only 200 people were allowed at each location to watch Thursday’s verdict.

In the capital Kampala and other towns, people gathered in restaurants and bars to watch Mr. Ongwen listen stoically as the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, listed his crimes. Those include murders, abductions, enslavement and pillaging of refugee camps and other settlements in Uganda.

People in Lukodi, Uganda, gathered to watch the court proceedings on Thursday.

Photo: sumy sadurni/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

In one incident cited in the verdict, rebels forced a mother to throw her two-month-old baby in a rubbish pit before abducting her. “Dominic Ongwen instructed fighters to attack people, loot food and abduct civilians,” Judge Schmitt said. “If abductees walked too slowly, they were beaten or killed.”

Today, the Lord’s Resistance Army has shrunk to fewer than 150 fighters from around 8,000 just over a decade ago, according to Ugandan military estimates. Scattered into small groups in the jungle of the Central African Republic, its fighters survive by staging predatory attacks on villages.

Mr. Ongwen himself was abducted by the LRA as a 10-year-old on his way to school in 1990. He is the only former child soldier to be tried at the ICC and his lawyer argued that his client, who can appeal the verdict, was a victim who lacked the ability to distinguish between good and evil.

But Judge Schmitt said that the panel of three judges established that Mr. Ongwen didn’t commit his crimes under duress. Among the more than 50 witnesses who testified against Mr. Ongwen in the four-year trial were seven of his former wives, who accused him of forcing them into marrying him. One testified how he forced her to kill a captured Ugandan soldier.

Sentencing is expected at a different hearing around mid-April and Mr. Ongwen could face a maximum sentence of life in prison, according to court officials.

The ICC issued arrest warrants for Mr. Ongwen, along with four other LRA commanders, in 2005, at the height of the insurgency. The warrants prompted Mr. Kony to start negotiations with the Ugandan government a year later, but talks collapsed without a deal. In 2011, the U.S. sent 100 Green Berets to Uganda to help Ugandan-led African Union troops hunt for Mr. Kony’s fighters in the Central African Republic.

Two years later, the State Department announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of Messrs. Ongwen and Kony. Mr. Ongwen was captured by another rebel group in the Central African Republic in 2015 and handed over to U.S. troops. U.S. officials never confirmed whether the reward was paid out. The other three wanted commanders have since died.

Human-rights groups welcomed the verdict, and called for continued efforts to apprehend Mr. Kony, the only senior LRA commander still at large. “We hope this decision provides a measure of redress for the 4,000 victims who participated in the case and who can now receive reparations for their suffering,” said Seif Magango, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and Great Lakes.

People in Gulu, Uganda, watched the verdict on television.

Photo: sumy sadurni/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Write to Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com

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