Test Case for Ugandan Justice

Kampala puts former LRA commander on trial – but not for war crimes.

Test Case for Ugandan Justice

Kampala puts former LRA commander on trial – but not for war crimes.

Friday, 7 August, 2009

The country's ability to try those accused of war crimes by itself will be put to the test in August, when Thomas Kwoyelo becomes the first former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, to appear before magistrates in the country.

However, in order to speed up the legal process, he is not being officially charged with war crimes, but with the lesser offence of kidnap with intent to murder.

Kwoyelo will initially appear before the regional court in Gulu, but his case will be submitted to Kampala once initial investigations are over, according to local lawyers.

Uganda has said that it will set up a special branch of the high court in Kampala to try captured war criminals, but it is not operational yet.

Observers say that when the charges against Kwoyelo were read out to a packed courtroom on June 4, people had been jubilant at the thought that a former LRA commander would be charged with war crimes.

But such jubilation quickly turned to disappointment when they heard the lesser charge announced.

Kwoyelo, 37, was captured in the Democratic Republic of Congo in March, following a gun battle between the Ugandan army and LRA soldiers.

He faces 12 counts of kidnap with intent to murder relating to the disappearance of villagers from Atiak and Pabbo, sub-counties of Amuru and Gulu districts, who were allegedly seized by LRA soldiers. They were not seen again.

Kwoyelo is also alleged to have commanded a band of insurgents that raided villages and killed over 100 innocent civilians in Otwal, Oyam district, about 37 kilometres from Lira town.

Chief magistrate Joseph Omodo Onyanga, who heard the charges against Kwoyelo, said that the defendant would face trial at the high court in Kampala, but only once he had answered his current charges before the regional court.

Onyanga declined, however, to say what Kwoyelo would be tried for in Kampala.

The push for a speedy trial for former LRA rebels reflects the frustration that many villagers in northern Uganda feel about the length of time it is taking to achieve justice for atrocities committed in the region.

“We want to try former fighters so that we can enjoy peace and harmony in the north,” said one villager. “We don’t want the offended to take revenge against the offenders.”

DRC lawyers said war crimes charges could even be reduced to treason in an attempt to offer justice for both perpetrators and victims, as they wait for the establishment of the war crimes division in Kampala.

A number of senior academics have criticised the decision to try Kwoyelo in Uganda, saying that the country does not have jurisdiction over war crimes and that the International Criminal Court, ICC, would be better placed to deal with the case.

In 2005, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Joseph Kony, head of the LRA, as well as Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen.

However, no international arrest warrant has been issued for Kwoyelo.

Reverend James Awany, the academic registrar of Lira-based All Saints University, said that for regional courts to be able to handle war crimes, they must be able to show impartiality.

“In terms of knowledge and technical expertise, Uganda is very capable,” Awany told IWPR. “The main problem is that local, regional or even national courts are not independent, unlike the international courts. Here the courts are very corrupt and often take sides.”

Another academic, who asked to remain anonymous, said that local judges are not knowledgeable enough about war crimes to conduct effective trials against LRA commanders.

She also criticised the magistrates for not contacting international human rights bodies before bringing charges against Kwoyelo.

“If regional courts are to try former LRA fighters, international judicial bodies must be made aware of every step they take,” she said.

Born in Acut-Omer village in Amuru district of northern Uganda, Kwoyelo was abducted in 1987 when he was just 15. He spent over half of his life in the LRA.

Recently, Kwoyelo told the Sunday Vision, a Ugandan newspaper, "My situation in the bush was like that of a dog and his master. When you tell a dog to do something, it will act as instructed. All orders came from Kony."

According to Onyanga, Gulu chief magistrate, Kwoyelo has yet to be assigned a lawyer.

Onyanga says that other LRA fighters have been brought to trial for certain cases, such as armed robbery, but investigations are ongoing and none have so far been prosecuted.

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained reporter.

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