A Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army commander accused of war crimes made his first appearance before the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Monday, giving thanks to God as he took the stand after a decade on the run.
Dominic Ongwen, a child soldier who rose through the ranks of the rebel group that abducted him, was among five senior LRA commanders indicted by the global court in 2005.
Dressed in a dark blue suit and white shirt, Ongwen appeared hesitant, looking nervously around the courtroom as he rose to confirm his identity.
“I’d like to thank God for creating heaven and earth together with everybody that’s on earth,” he said, speaking in his native Acholi.
“My name is Dominic Ongwen and I am a Ugandan citizen… I was abducted in 1988 and I was taken to the bush when I was 14 years old,” he said through an interpreter.
He faces seven counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, enslavement, pillage and attacks on civilians committed during a 2004 attack on a camp for displaced persons in Uganda.
Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova convened a first pre-trial hearing for Aug. 24.
The LRA rose up against the government in northern Uganda under the leadership of Joseph Kony in the late 1980s. The group has been accused of abducting children to serve as fighters and sex slaves.
Ongwen, 34, defected from the LRA in late December and handed himself over to the Seleka rebels who control swathes of the north and east of the Central African Republic.
Kony, a former choirboy who claimed to be guided by spirits only he could hear, was also indicted. He is still at large.
Having earned a reputation for carrying out massacres and mutilating victims, the LRA left Uganda about a decade ago and has roamed across parts of Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and CAR since then, eluding efforts to defeat them.
Set up 12 years ago to try international crimes that local authorities are unable or unwilling to deal with, the ICC has handed down just three verdicts, two of them acquittals, and been accused of targeting Africans for prosecution.
Its case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta collapsed last year after a diplomatic storm.
Earlier this year it launched a probe into alleged crimes committed in the Palestinian Territories, angering Israel, which has threatened to lobby for the court’s funding to be cut.