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Otti Mocks Court's Indictment Record

LRA accuses ICC of being faint-hearted for not charging heads of states over human rights abuses.
By Julius Ocen
The international justice system works to silence opponents of bad governments while exercising leniency and indulgence towards executive state presidents and prime ministers who themselves are suspected of committing war crimes, the leadership of Uganda’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, has alleged in an interview with IWPR.

“No government leader in power has been arrested or tried” in international tribunals, said LRA commander Vincent Otti, who himself is the target of an arrest warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the fledgling International Criminal Court, ICC, based in The Hague.

Speaking by satellite phone from the LRA’s guerrilla headquarters, deep in the bush of the 5000-square-kilometre Garamba National Park, in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Otti told IWPR, “If this institution [the ICC] is really designed to try anybody suspected of crimes against humanity, then it should also be trying the Ugandan People’s Defence Force.”

The UPDF, the armed forces of the government of Uganda, and the LRA have been locked in a 21-year-long civil war in northern Uganda that has seen more than 100,000 people die, some 1.7 million people uprooted from their homes and made internal refugees, and an estimated 38,000 children aged as young as seven and eight years abducted by the rebels to serve as guerrilla fighters, porters and sex slaves.

“Thomas Lubanga was arrested because he was suspected of being a rebel, but if he had been the president of a country he would not be behind bars now in a European prison,” said Otti, who is deputy to the LRA leader Joseph Kony.

Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, leader of an ethnic Hema militia in the heavily-forested, mineral-rich Ituri region of the Congo, was placed in custody by the Congo government and transferred to an ICC prison in the capital of the Netherlands in March 2006. Proceedings against 46-year-old Lubanga are going forward with glacial speed. A preliminary hearing will be heard in The Hague only on September 4, eighteen months after Lubanga’s arrest: that hearing will deal only with pre-trial issues, and there is no clarity when a full trial will begin.

Lubanga is specifically charged with recruiting children under the age of fifteen to fight as guerrilla soldiers. In the five years of operation of the ICC, staffed by some 600 international civil servants, Lubanga is the only person the court has so far managed to arrest.

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based international human rights organisation, has been pushing ICC prosecutors to investigate the involvement of the Ugandan and Rwandan governments in the Ituri conflict for several years, arguing that the various Ituri militias have been armed and financed by outside groups with an interest in the Congo’s mineral and forest wealth.

The LRA, which has been involved in peace talks with the Ugandan government for more than a year, has said it will not agree to a final settlement unless ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo withdraws indictments against Kony, Otti and other rebel leaders. Moreno-Ocampo’s 23-page charge sheet alleges that the LRA leaders "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".

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

Otti demonstrated his own confusion about who exactly in The Hague is issuing the warrant for his own arrest and that of others when he said, “If [Ugandan president Yoweri] Museveni left power today he would be arrested by the ICJ tomorrow.”

The International Court of Justice is the primary judicial organ of the United Nations, and has operated in The Hague since 1946, resolving legal disputes between sovereign states, not between individuals. It is confused over and over again with the ICC - that began work only in 2002 and focuses on war crimes and crimes against humanity by individuals - and which seeks Otti’s arrest.

Otti alleged that Museveni would only ever face potential prosecution by an international court when he steps down from political power. “He will then find himself behind bars in The Hague to answer crimes against the people of Uganda who were killed in the Luwero Triangle when Museveni was a bush fighter, like us, fighting the then established government he overthrew,” said Otti.

Northern Ugandans allege that as far back as the Eighties, Museveni's then rebel group, the southern-dominated National Resistance Army, NRA, was responsible for human rights abuses during the war against the government of the then president Milton Obote. In Museveni’s 1981-86 guerrilla war, tens of thousands of people were killed in the Luwero Triangle, an area to the northwest of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, where NRA rebels were deeply entrenched.

The LRA revolt is in part the consequence of historic tensions between the ethnic Nilotic tribes of northern Uganda and the Bantu tribes of the south. Each has established national dominance at different times, often by force and sometimes through the ballot box.

In his interview with IWPR, Otti blamed the UPDF for the “Barlonyo massacre” of February 21, 2004, when LRA guerrillas were widely reported to have attacked an internal refugee camp of that name, near the northern town of Lira, and killed more than 300 people while abducting others and burning every building to the ground.

Otti claimed to IWPR that the Barlonyo attack was in fact carried out by Ugandan government soldiers, whose officers subsequently placed the blame on the LRA. “The UPDF,” he said, “has a habit of wearing rags and then hitting people in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. Then they go and put their uniforms back on to put out UPDF propaganda [alleging LRA responsibility].”

However, Bosco Okello, who was present at the Barlonyo attack and was abducted as a young child that day by the LRA, recently escaped from the rebels and returned home. "I didn't know what to think when I first came back," said Bosco, now aged 16. On February 21, 2004, before he was taken away to an LRA camp, he helplessly watched the rebels execute his own brother. Okello is now trying to find work on construction projects to support his parents - neither of whom can walk because they were shot in the legs on that same date - and his younger brother and sister.

Before severing the satellite phone call from the Garamba, Otti warned that peace talks in Juba, South Sudan, between the Ugandan government and the LRA would fail if Museveni did not move quickly to demand that the court in The Hague drop its charges against the LRA.

He threw out a challenge to the ICC, which has no police force of its own, “to come and arrest me if it thinks it can do so”, and said terms used by Museveni such as “terrorists” to describe the LRA “are propaganda to intimidate the oppressed minority groups that are fighting for their rights”.

In The Hague on August 20, a Ugandan judge, Julia Sebutinde, insisted, in an interview with IWPR, that the serious nature of the allegations against Kony and Otti means they should be tried by a formal international court rather than simply going through informal tribal ceremonies designed to achieve reconciliation.

“War crimes and crimes against humanity [charges] which LRA top commanders are facing cannot be tried using the local traditional justice system like the Acholi Mato Oput [a traditional reconciliation ceremony of the Acholi ethnic group of northern Uganda],” said Judge Sebutinde, who is sitting in the case of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, accused of war crimes at the UN-sponsored Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague.

“The perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in northern Uganda, in all fairness, must appear before an impartial and independent tribunal to answer the charges,” continued the judge. Only a tribunal of this kind, she said, would “adequately address” the kind of crimes that Kony, Otti and their commanders are charged with.

Moreno-Ocampo has consistently said that the arrest warrants against Kony, Otti and others must be executed.

Julius Ocen is an IWPR journalist in Uganda.

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