An alleged senior commander in the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army was notorious among fellow soldiers for enslaving and raping particularly young girls, beating those who resisted, the International Criminal Court heard on Tuesday.
Addressing judges at the start of the trial, the court’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that Dominic Ongwen was himself a victim of LRA leader Joseph Kony’s campaign of child kidnapping was at most a mitigating circumstance.
Describing harrowing acts of sexual violence, Bensouda said Ongwen had raped one child victim vaginally and anally.
“To quiet her when she wept and screamed he threatened her with his bayonet,” Bensouda told the court, citing the witness’s statement.
The prosecutor quoted another witness describing children as young as six receiving military training, so small “that the muzzles of their AK-47 rifles dragged along the ground”.
Bensouda also played extracts from intercepted radio traffic in which a rebel she identified as Ongwen confirmed massacring a group of civilians.
Ongwen, who says he was abducted as a teenager and pressed into service in the late 1980s, faces 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in northern Uganda.
He pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
“It was the LRA who abducted and killed people in northern Uganda and I am one of the people against whom the LRA committed atrocities,” he said in his native Acholi, speaking through an interpreter.
Dressed in a sober suit, Ongwen appeared unsure of his surroundings. Asked to stand, he rose only after the guards surrounding him interpreted the order with hand gestures.
He was indicted by the global court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2005 alongside Kony, still at large, and three other commanders now believed dead.
Waging a rebellion against Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the LRA earned a reputation for massacres, mutilating civilians and mass kidnapping of children to serve as fighters and sex slaves from the late 1980s onwards.
Ongwen gave himself up last year after a decade on the run. Prosecutors accuse him of being commander of the LRA’s Sinia Brigade and being responsible for a series of attacks on civilians from October 2003 to June 2004.
The LRA left Uganda after a military offensive by Kampala and has since roamed across lawless parts of Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Central African Republic, eluding international efforts to defeat it.