ICC hands Ugandan LRA commander 'White Ant' 25-year jail term
People watch on tv the screening of the start of the ICC (International Criminal Court) trial of former child soldier-turned-warlord Dominic Ongwen in Lukodi, Uganda on December 6, 2016. Ongwen pleaded not guilty on December 6 to crimes committed by the LRA rebel group in northern Uganda during a reign of terror spanning three decades. The first former child soldier to be tried at the ICC, Ongwen, 41, earlier denied 70 war crimes and crimes against humanity charges as he also became the first former child soldier to be tried by the ICC for his role in the notorious rebel group led by the elusive Joseph Kony. (ISAAC KASAMANI / AFP)
(AFP) - The International Criminal Court on Thursday sentenced Dominic Ongwen, a Ugandan child soldier who became a commander in the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), to 25 years in jail for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Ongwen, 45 -- whose nom de guerre was "White Ant" -- was found guilty in February of 61 charges, including murders, rapes and sexual enslavement during a reign of terror in the early 2000s by the LRA, led by the fugitive Joseph Kony.
"In light of the gravity of the crimes that you committed... the Chamber sentences you to a total period of imprisonment of 25 years," declared presiding judge Bertram Schmitt.
The case revived traumatic memories of the rebel group's brutal rampage across East Africa, but also cast light on the plight and moral responsibility of child soldiers.
Prosecutors had asked for a 20-year term, saying Ongwen's own past justified a lower sentence than the maximum of 30 years to life allowed by the ICC.
The defence had sought a 10-year term for Ongwen for attacks by his men on refugee camps in northern Uganda.
Victims of his crimes had asked the court to impose the full life sentence.
The six years he has served in custody will be deducted from the sentence and Ongwen can appeal.
Schmitt said the court was faced with a "unique" case, describing Ongwen as both a criminal and a victim.
He said Ongwen, an intellectually gifted child, had had a "brilliant future" before him until he was kidnapped while on his way to school aged nine.
- 'Lifetime trauma' -
In northern Uganda, many people interviewed by AFP said the sentence was too lenient.
"I was surprised the court gave only 25 years. It should have been more years in jail because the harm and suffering the LRA caused to people of this region is a lifetime trauma," said James Komakech Olwo, a 49-year-old farmer in Amuru.
"Ongwen was young when he was abducted but grew and enjoyed the fruits of crime," said Juma Okello Matata, 28, a shoe seller in the nearby city of Gulu.
"I don't support (the) death sentence but there are crimes that deserve death and Ongwen deserved that."
But Ongwen's stepmother, Magdalena Akot, who has been looking after 12 of his children in Coorom village, said the suffering and the blame were wider.
"He is now going to suffer, and his children too. But where was the state when he was being abducted while a child?" the 56-year-old asked.
Ongwen surrendered to US special forces who were hunting Kony in the Central African Republic in early 2015 and he was transferred to the ICC to face trial.
"He has been in jail for long and now they are giving him 25 years more. This ends his life on Earth," said David Johnson Onelalit, 38, who has been counselling Ongwen's relatives.
'He (Ongwen) called me last week on the telephone, telling me he has 35 children but some of them are yet to be traced," he said.
Expecting a long jail term, Ongwen asked him to find and help those children, but "I feed them with what?" he asked, throwing his arms in the air in desperation.
- Blood-soaked beans -
The LRA was founded three decades ago by former Catholic altar boy and self-styled prophet Kony, who launched a bloody rebellion in northern Uganda against President Yoweri Museveni.
Its brutal campaign to set up a state based on the Bible's Ten Commandments left more than 100,000 people dead and 60,000 children abducted, eventually spreading to Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic.
During the trial, Ongwen told the court that the LRA forced him to eat beans soaked with the blood of the first people he was made to kill as part of a brutal initiation following his own abduction aged nine.
"I am before this international court with so many charges, and yet I am the first victim of child abduction. What happened to me, I do not even believe happened to Jesus Christ," Ongwen said.
Judges said in their verdict in February that Ongwen personally ordered his soldiers to carry out massacres of more than 130 civilians at the Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok refugee camps between 2002 and 2005.
Civilians were locked in their homes and burned to death or beaten during the massacres, while mothers were made to transport the LRA's loot, forcing them to abandon their infant children by the roadside.
Ongwen was also the first person convicted by the ICC of the crime of forced pregnancy, for abducting and raping so-called "wives", some of whom were underage.
© Agence France-Presse