The International Criminal Court (ICC) has sentenced Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier who became one of the top commanders of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), to 25 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Uganda.
The 45-year-old in February was found guilty 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.
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Announcing the 25-year prison term on Thursday, ICC Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said judges had to weigh Ongwen’s brutality with his own tortured past as a schoolboy abducted by the LRA when deciding on a sentence.
“The chamber is confronted in the present case with a unique situation. It is confronted with a perpetrator who willfully brought tremendous suffering upon his victims,” Schmitt 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 member and leader.”
Ongwen, who was present in The Hague-based court wearing a face mask and headphones, showed no emotion as he heard the sentence handed down to him.
‘I am the first victim of child abduction’
Prosecutors had asked for a 20-year prison term for Ongwen, saying his own history justified a lower sentence than the maximum 30 years to life allowed by the ICC.
Victims of his crimes had asked the court to impose the full life sentence, however, while the defence had sought a 10-year prison term.
Ongwen, who went by the nom de guerre “White Ant” during attacks by his soldiers on refugee camps in northern Uganda, had told the court 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.
His relatives told Al Jazeera earlier this year that many children were taken by the rebels at the time.
“We pray that he is forgiven,” Johnson Odonga, Ongwen’s uncle, said.
Brutal LRA campaign
The LRA was founded 30 years ago by former Catholic altar boy and self-styled prophet Kony, who launched a bloody rebellion in northern Uganda against President Yoweri Museveni. It has now largely been wiped out.
But its brutal campaign to set up a state based on Kony’s interpretation of the Bible’s Ten Commandments left more than 100,000 people dead and 60,000 children abducted, according to the United Nations. The violent campaign eventually spread to Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Judges said in their verdict in February that Ongwen personally ordered his soldiers to carry out mass killings 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 killings, 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.
Ongwen surrendered to US special forces who were hunting Kony in CAR in early 2015.
Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, said his sentencing would not mark the end of the “pursuit for justice” over the conflict in northern Uganda, however.
“A big question is why hasn’t Kony been caught,” Webb said. “He’s still at large and he was very much considered the mastermind of all these atrocities and the abduction of children.”
Webb added that many people living in the region also continue to question why the ICC has not investigated alleged historic atrocities committed by Ugandan forces during the conflict with the LRA, or the failure of the Ugandan forces to protect the civilian population in the area from the group.