A Ugandan former commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army appealed against his conviction at the International Criminal Court on Monday on the grounds that he was scarred by his own history as a child soldier.
Ongwen, who was abducted aged nine by the rebel group led by the fugitive Joseph Kony, was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity last year and sentenced to 25 years in jail.
“Dominic Ongwen was, and still is, a child,” Ongwen’s defence lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo told the ICC, based in The Hague.
“He was just a child when he was abducted and made into a fighting machine without a mind of his own… a child the government of Uganda and the international community failed to rescue from the evil grip of the LRA for 25 years.”
Ongwen still believed he was “possessed” by the spirit of Kony as he had not been cleansed by local rituals, Odongo added.
Ongwen is challenging both his conviction on 61 charges including murder, rape, sexual enslavement and forced pregnancy, and the length of the sentence, alleging both legal and factual errors.
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 bid to set up a state based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments claimed more than 100,000 lives and saw 60,000 children abducted, eventually spreading to Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
ICC judges in their trial verdict last year ruled that Ongwen had not suffered from mental illness despite his own history of being abducted while on his way to school and then brutalised by the LRA.
They said Ongwen, who went by the nom de guerre “White Ant”, 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.
ICC prosecutors urged judges to uphold Ongwen’s conviction and sentence.
“Dominic Ongwen played a key role in these crimes, planning them, organising them and issuing orders,” prosecutor Helen Brady told judges.
She acknowledged Ongwen’s traumatic youth but said he went on to rise through the LRA’s ranks and “developed” its tactics, including the abduction of child soldiers and sex slaves.
“Seven women and girls were forced by Mr Ongwen to be his so-called wives… and to endure his repeated rapes, sexual enslavement and forced pregnancies,” she said.
The ICC was set up in 2002 to bring perpetrators of the world’s worst crimes to justice, but has been criticised for choosing many of its cases from African nations.