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LRA Hires Lawyers for Peace Talks

Ugandan lawyers will deal specifically with ICC arrest warrants.
By Samuel Okiror
Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, deputy commander, Vincent Otti, has appointed three lawyers to strengthen the group’s negotiating team at peace talks with the Ugandan government.

In a satellite phone interview with IWPR from the LRA's main base in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, Otti said the lawyers would handle questions raised by the decision of the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague to put the LRA's leaders on trial on charges of crimes against humanity.

“Their role shall be to beef up our negotiating team on how to handle the law and any criminality issues lined up against us as we carry on with the talks," said Otti.

The rebel commander said the Ugandan lawyers would deal specifically with the arrest warrants issued by the ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

The warrants alleges that LRA chief Joseph Kony, his deputy, Otti, and commanders Okot Odiambo and Domenic Ogwen "engaged in a cycle of violence and established a pattern of brutalisation of civilians by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements".

An arrest warrant was issued against a fifth man, Raska Lukwiya, but he was killed in fighting last year.

The charge sheet further alleges that Kony and his men abducted civilians, including children, who forcibly “recruited” as fighters, porters and sex slaves to serve the LRA.

Otti, who comes from Atiak, a small trading post in northwest Uganda, has denied committing any atrocities in the 21-year northern Ugandan war that has pitted the LRA against Uganda's armed forces.

He said he expected the government to go to The Hague to withdraw the arrest warrants against the four commanders, following the signing of an agreement by Ugandan government and LRA representatives at the peace talks held in Juba, the capital of autonomous south Sudan.

“Unfortunately, we are not seeing this. But we are committed to the peace talks,” he said.

The Ugandan government and LRA rebels signed a truce aimed at ending a 19-year conflict last year.

An agreement on accountability and reconciliation - the third item on the agenda at peace talks was signed in June. It concerns the possibility of using local justice mechanisms to prosecute those suspected of committing war crimes on both sides of the war.

“I am ready to face prosecution in Uganda," he told IWPR. "However, I am 100 per cent sure that I have not committed any crime at all.”

During the interview, Otti repeated his earlier arguments that the ICC arrest warrants against the LRA's top commanders represent a major stumbling block to the peace process. The moment the ICC arrest warrants are lifted, he said, the rebels will quickly move out of their guerrilla bases.

“As soon as they are removed, I will be on the move to Uganda immediately. I will go to my village, then to Gulu [northern Uganda's biggest town], then Kampala,” he said.

“If the ICC indictments are not lifted, we shall remain in the bush.”

The LRA fled to Garamba from their former bases in southern Sudan in late 2004.

Otti's resolve to return to Uganda via Atiak will likely send tremors of fear through the population of the settlement.

On April 20, 1995, an LRA force led by Otti mounted a major offensive against Atiak and defeated Ugandan government troops stationed there.

According to accounts by the Justice and Reconciliation Project, JRP, Otti's guerrillas rounded up hundreds of men, women and children and force-marched them to the banks of a nearby river. JRP, together with Ker Kwaro Acholi, the cultural institution representing the Acholi people of northern Uganda, has been conducting research to promote reconciliation through traditional methods after the conflict.

There they were separated into two groups, mainly according to their sex.

After being harangued for their alleged collaboration with the Ugandan government, witnesses interviewed by the JRP say Otti ordered his soldiers to open fire three times on a group of an estimated 300 civilian men and boys, who all died.

Otti is then said to have turned to the women and girls and remaining young boys and ordered them to applaud the LRA’s work. Before leaving, Otti and the guerrillas are said to have selected a number of girls to march with them to become LRA porters and "wives".

A female survivor of what has become known as the Atiak Massacre said, "They fired at the [300 selected] people first and then again for the second time to ensure that they are all dead… My first-born child, mother-in-law, father-in-law and my husband were all killed and I watched them die. I returned with four children whom I am struggling to take care of now."

Otti, in an earlier interview with IWPR, said he is even prepared to travel to The Hague to face charges at the ICC - on condition that the court’s prosecutors also indict government soldiers from the Uganda People's Defence Force, the UPDF.

"If the UPDF are included on the list of indicted commanders, I will definitely go to The Hague. Short of that, I will never go. It’s not only the LRA alone who committed atrocities in northern Uganda. It’s both the LRA and the UPDF. Why did the ICC indict us alone?” he said.

The 4920 square kilometre Garamba National Park, where Kony, Otti and the LRA's other top leaders have their guerrilla headquarters, is in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The LRA army fled there in late 2004 from their former bases in southern Sudan. The Garamba's vast grasslands, savannahs and forests are a UNESCO World Heritage site and form the last refuge in the wild of the critically endangered northern race of the African White Rhino.

The rhinos have been heavily poached by the LRA and other marauders. At the last count, only five of the animals remained, down from an estimated 1200 in 1960, meaning the species is almost certainly doomed to extinction.

Samuel Okiror Egadu is an IWPR journalist in Uganda.

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