Ugandan bishop willing to defend notorious Lord’s Resistance Army commander in war crimes court

In its heyday, the Ugandan rebel force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army was accused of killing more than 100,000 people, abducting 60,000 to 100,000 children and displacing more than 2.5 million civilians.

But now a retired Anglican bishop in northern Uganda says he is ready to defend one of the LRA’s top commanders, who stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Bishop Nelson Onono-Onweng said rebel commander Dominic Ongwen was a victim of circumstance, having been abducted at the age of 10 and transformed into a marauding killer.

“I am willing to go and give evidence at the ICC about him. I am not afraid,” said Onono-Onweng. “The world betrayed this child. The state, which had the instruments to protect him, did not. The international community also took too long to act (against the) LRA. The world can see how things conspired against him.”

Ongwen appeared at the International Criminal Court on Monday (Jan. 26) after surrendering to the U.S. special forces in Central African Republic. He was indicted in 2005, together with three other top commanders.

Onono-Onweng said he had met Ongwen in 2006 when religious, cultural and political leaders took a trip into the Congo forest to ask the rebels to end the violence.

Ongwen commanded the deadly Sania Brigade within the LRA. The LRA, led by Joseph Kony, a former Catholic Church altar boy, appeared in northern Uganda around 1986. Combining African mysticism and Christian fundamentalism, it fought to replace President Yoweri Museveni’s government with a theocratic one.

In 2008, the LRA left northern Uganda, and it is now believed to be operating in a densely forested area between Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and CAR.

In 1997, northern Uganda religious leaders formed the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an organization to steer for peace there.

Since the ICC indictment, the peace group has been urging for a cultural justice system called “Mato Oput” in place of the international court.

According to Sheikh Musa Khalil, a Muslim leader in Uganda and vice chairman of the peace group, Mato Oput, which is based on forgiveness, can achieve more than the ICC since it brings healing and transformation and restores relationships.

Khalil said there are concerns Ongwen’s ICC case could stir a fresh conflict, as former LRA fighters who have surrendered fear they would be arrested.