This week the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened the trial against Dominic Ongwen, a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander. According to UN estimates, the group is responsible for over 100,000 deaths and 60,000 abduction of children in Northern Uganda. Ongwen faces 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, among them murder, torture, kidnapping, pillaging and a wide range of sexual violence crimes.

In her opening statement, the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, largely focused on Ongwen’s responsibility for sexual crimes, such as forced marriage and sexual enslavement, being charged for the first time at the ICC. “Hundreds of girls suffered these crimes at the hands of the LRA fighters to whom Dominic Ongwen distributed them,” Bensouda said. Ongwen is charged for both directly perpetrating these crimes and, as a commander, for allowing them to happen.

He is also accused of having played a prominent role in institutionalizing the practice of sexual crimes in the LRA. Ongwen did not plead guilty on Tuesday and blamed the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony, for the crimes he is accused of, as he said in his opening statement that he was himself abducted by the group and taken as child soldier.

More than 4,000 victims participating in Ongwen trial

More than 4,000 victims are participating in the case and are represented by a team of lawyers. Seven women, who were forced into marriage in their teenage years, have already testified before the opening of the trial due to their vulnerability and alleged witness interference. Their experiences of being abducted, repeatedly raped and threatened with violence, allegedly by Ongwen himself, point to a policy of the LRA to sexually assault young girls.

Implications of the Dominic Ongwen trial

Broadcast at numerous affected villages in Northern Uganda, the Ongwen trial is the first time victims of the LRA are receiving justice at the ICC. Moreover, the trial is important since it highlights the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war and, for the first time, covers a variety of sexual crimes.

The trial will continue on 16 January 2017 with the presentation of evidence by the prosecution as well as testimonies from witnesses. Due to the massive amount of charges, the trial is expected to take several years. Nonetheless, it marks a significant step in the fight against impunity for LRA atrocities in general, and for numerous sexual crimes that devastated the lives of thousands of civilians in particular. The prosecutor’s focus on gender-based and sexual crimes further increases the significance of this breakthrough trial, setting an important precedent for the battles yet to be fought against perpetrators in various places, such as DRC, Syria and many more..

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