ICC sentences former rebel commander to 25 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity
OSeveno, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
ICC sentences former rebel commander to 25 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity

By a 2-1 majority, Trial Chamber IX of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Thursday sentenced Dominic Ongwen to 25 years of imprisonment for 61 war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen is a former brigade commander of the African rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Ongwen was abducted by the LRA as a 9-year-old on his way to school and became one of its top commanders. He is the first person to be tried by the ICC as a victim of some of the same crimes he had committed.

While the maximum sentence that can be awarded by the ICC is 30 years, and life imprisonment in case of “extreme gravity of the crime and the individual circumstances of the convicted person,” prosecutors had sought a sentence of at least 20 years in jail on account of Ongwen’s personal history, victims had asked that he be awarded life imprisonment, and the defense had argued for a 10-year sentence. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said that in determining the sentence, Ongwen’s crimes had to be weighed against his own individual circumstances, due to which he was not awarded a life sentence. The summary of the sentencing decision mentions:

The Chamber is confronted in the present case with a unique situation. It is confronted with a perpetrator who willfully and lucidly brought tremendous suffering upon his victims. 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.

While the court considered Ongwen’s childhood, abduction by the LRA, and his early stay with the rebel group as mitigating circumstances, it also took into consideration several aggravating circumstances, including particular cruelty, defenselessness of victims, their multiplicity, and discrimination based on political grounds and against women. The decision summary mentions:

Dominic Ongwen fully intended all of these crimes. He played a key role in their commission. He participated in the planning of the attack on Pajule IDP camp and personally took part in it. At the other attacks, at Odek, Lukodi and Abok IDP camps, it was he who decided to launch the attacks: he selected the fighters and the ground commanders and issued specific instructions ahead of each attack. He reported the result up the chain of command over the LRA radio after each attack was concluded and took credit for it.

The highest individual sentences awarded to Ongwen are 20 years’ imprisonment for certain crimes of utmost gravity, and for other individual crimes he was awarded eight or 14 years of imprisonment. The judges comprising the majority were of the view that a joint sentence of 25 years “adequately reflects the strongest condemnation by the international community of the crimes committed by Dominic Ongwen and acknowledges the great harm and suffering caused to the victims,” and also allows for his possible reintegration into society. 

Judge Raul Cano Pangalangan partly dissented by agreeing on individual sentences but not the joint sentence, considering 30 years to be the adequate term of imprisonment for Ongwen. He said such a term would reflect the extreme gravity of his crimes as well as the harm caused to the victims and their families, and that a 25-year sentence would fail to consider such suffering. He said:

I am of the view that imposing a joint sentence of 30 years of imprisonment would not amount to ‘put[ting] aside’ the specificity of Dominic Ongwen’s personal history. Rather, it would guard against the Court giving such weight to the individual circumstances of the convicted person that the extreme gravity of the crimes of which Dominic Ongwen was found guilty pales in comparison.

The sentence may be appealed before the Appeals Chamber by either party.