Dominic Ongwen during his first appearance at the ICC. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and faces life in prison if convicted. Photograph: Pool/Reuters
A former militia leader who took part in a campaign of violence across Uganda is to appear at the international criminal court for one of the most important trials in its 14-year history.
Dominic Ongwen was among the most feared leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a cult blamed for the deaths of about 100,000 people and the abduction of 60,000 children.
He is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, pillage and enslavement, in northern Uganda and neighbouring countries.
The specific charges that will be read out on Tuesday focus on a series of attacks on refugee camps between 2004 and 2005, but Ongwen has also been blamed for scores of other atrocities.
One of the worst involved a four-day raid by the LRA on camps in north-eastern Congo in December 2009, in which about 350 civilians were killed and another 250, including at least 80 children, were abducted.
The trial has been hailed by human rights campaigners. Elise Keppler, an associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, said it is a “significant first on justice for LRA atrocities”.
But determining the guilt or innocence of Ongwen is less straightforward than the reams of evidence gathered by the prosecution may suggest.
Ongwen was a child soldier and is believed to have been abducted by the LRA when he was nine-years-old. Therefore, according to his legal team and some observers, he is a perpetrator and a victim.
Ledio Cakaj, the author of When the Walking Defeats You, a book that documents the experiences of a bodyguard to the LRA leader, Joseph Kony, said: “A lot of these people of the LRA, who are considered as the bad guys, were in some sense victims in the first place. It’s a very tricky issue … There are very interesting questions here.”
Defence lawyers will argue that much of the evidence against Ongwen is unreliable and say their client was brutalised and traumatised after being abducted.
“He was tortured … forced to watch people being killed, used for fighting as a child soldier. Even the prosecution have said that what he went through is a serious mitigating factor,” said Thomas Obhof, a US lawyer based in Uganda and part of the defence team.
The prosecution is expected to emphasise that the former LRA commander’s competence, loyalty and aggression helped him quickly move up the ranks.
Some Ugandans have called for forgiveness. “I want Mr Ongwen to be forgiven as some of us [other] rebel abductees have been forgiven, because the Bible says we should forgive,” said Dominic Ecodu, who spent 10 years with the LRA after being abducted aged seven.
A rare photograph of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is known for its brutality. Photograph: Adam Pletts/Getty Images
The savagery of Kony and his associates is not in doubt. The LRA waged war across five countries in east and central Africa for nearly 30 years and used mutilation as punishment, as well as kidnapping and raping young girls.
The group is now believed to comprise about 100 fighters, but it is still feared by civilians in remote communities and an inspiration to other militia groups, which have copied its brutal methods. Each week brings reports of new attacks.
Joseph Akweyu Manoba, a Ugandan lawyer appointed by the ICC to represent 1,500 of Ongwen’s alleged victims, said none of them believed that he was a victim. “They tell me that if the ICC doesn’t punish him and he returns to Uganda, then they will kill him themselves,” he said.
The Ongwen case is also significant for other reasons. Of the five senior LRA commanders indicted by the ICC 11 years ago, only Ongwen and Kony are still alive. Despite a $5m (£3.5m) reward for information leading to his capture, Kony remains at large.
Huge resources have been invested in building a case against the LRA leaders, whose arrest warrants were the first issued by the court.
The ICC, founded in 2002 to bring perpetrators of crimes that local criminal justice systems cannot deal with to justice, has been criticised widely in Africa by some who see it as a racist, imperialist institution. Nine out of the 10 cases being investigated by the ICC involve alleged crimes in Africa.
Defenders point out that the majority of the investigations have followed an explicit request or grant of jurisdiction from the government in the country where the crimes were allegedly committed, as in the case of Uganda. Others say the criticism of the institution only came when it started investigating acts allegedly committed by current rulers or their close associates from 2009.
The ICC sentenced Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to nine years in prison for destroying shrines in Timbuktu. Photograph: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images
Despite this, the ICC, which has an annual budget of more than €150m (£127m), has made progress in recent months.
In September, the court sentenced Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to nine years in prison after he pleaded guilty to destroying shrines that formed part of a Unesco world heritage site in Timbuktu, Mali, when the city was seized by Islamic militants in 2012.
South Africa, the Gambia and Burundi have announced their withdrawal from the court, but it is possible that none will leave.
The Gambia’s president-elect, Adama Barrow, who beat the authoritarian ruler Yahya Jammeh in an election last week, has said the country remains committed to the ICC.
On Monday, South Africa’s main opposition party launched a legal attempt to block government plans to withdraw from the ICC, claiming that the move is unconstitutional.
Ugandan citizens will be able to watch Ongwen’s trial in The Hague because the ICC has set up “viewing sites” where some of the alleged crimes were committed.
But Keppler added that many victims will not see justice, whatever the result. “Ongwen’s trial covers significant crimes, but does not extend to horrific LRA abuses committed outside Uganda,” she said. “This is a real loss for the LRA victims in [the Democratic Republic of the] Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan.”