TJ Monitor: Dominic Ongwen’s Initial Appearance Hearing at the ICC, 26 January 2015

Ongwen pre-trial hearing 2014-01-26

Dominic Ongwen while charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity are being read during the Initial Appearance hearing on 26 January 2015 (Picture: Philipp Schulz)

As part of the Justice and Reconciliation Project’s TJ Monitor, we will be regularly reporting about on-going proceedings during the trial of LRA Commander, Dominic Ongwen, at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Follow the TJ Monitor for developments in the pre-trial and trial stages for updates from The Hague.

On Monday, 26 January 2015 at 2 pm Dominic Ongwen appeared before the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the ICC in The Hague. During the appearance, single Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova repeated the charges against Ongwen, informed the defendant of his rights and set 24 August 2015 as the provisional date for the confirmation of changes hearing. As already previously announced by the ICC in a press release, since his arrival in The Hague, Ongwen reportedly received medical checks and treatments as well as access to a defense lawyer.

Throughout the initial appearance hearing, Ongwen was represented by his Duty Defense Counsel, Ms. Hélène Cissee, while Prosecutor Bensouda appeared on behalf of the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP). Ms. Cisse was appointed to be Ongwen’s Duty Counsel on 12 January and has a mandate to represent him until after the initial appearance hearing. As of now, Dominic Ongwen can choose his defense attorney. According to media reports, the Government of Uganda is to propose a team of defense lawyers to represent Ongwen.

When asked to verify his identity, Ongwen spoke in Acholi and informed the Judge that he was from Amuru District in northern Uganda. Interestingly, Ongwen said that he was born in 1975 and abducted in 1988 at the age of 14, contrary to previous reports regarding his age at abduction. Ongwen furthermore requested trial proceedings to be translated into the Acholi language for his benefit.

Following the verification of the identity of the accused, Judge Trendafilova confirmed that Ongwen was provided with the warrant of arrest in English and Acholi, and that he was informed about the charges brought against him, as well as his rights. The Single Judge mentioned that Ongwen already met with his Duty Counsel, Ms. Cisse, and representatives of the Registry of the ICC in Bangui in CAR, prior to his transfer to The Hague. Following this, a court officer read out the seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity Ongwen is facing.

Judge Trendafilova reiterated that the initial appearance was not yet a trial, and that no evidence would be presented or collected throughout the hearing. “Mr. Ongwen, you will be held innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt at trial,” the Judge confirmed.

Taking into consideration that the ‘situation concerning the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda’ was the first to be referred to the ICC, and that both the Prosecution and Ongwen’s Defense require sufficient time in order to prepare their cases, while simultaneously taking into account Ongwen’s right to be tried without due delay, the Pre-Trial Chamber decided to provisionally schedule the confirmation of charges hearing for 24 August 2015.

On Wednesday, 28 January 2015, a Status Conference will be held in a closed session, in presence of the Prosecutor only.

Before the closing of the hearing, Ongwen’s Defense Counsel, Ms. Cisse – while stating that her client’s English “is less than basic”, and that all documents and evidence thus need to be translated into Acholi – highlighted that Ongwen “was forced to stay in the bush for more than twenty years” and  basically had no access to formal education.


Dominic Ongwen was transferred to The Hague last week, on January 21, following his surrender to or capture by Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this month, on January 6. What exactly happened between Ongwen’s capture/surrender and his transfer to The Hague is not yet fully known, but various reports indicate that he went through the custody of the Seleka rebels, CAR forces, allegedly the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF), US Special Forces as well as finally the ICC.

The ICC issued an arrest warrant against Dominic Ongwen (and four other top LRA commander – including Vincent Otti and Joseph Kony) on 8 July 2005 for three counts of crimes against humanity (murder; enslavement; inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering) and four counts of war crimes (murder; cruel treatment of civilians; intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population; pillaging). Specifically, the charges refer to Ongwen’s alleged criminal responsibility for crimes committed in northern Uganda in 2004. The Government of Uganda initially referred the situation regarding the LRA to the ICC on 16 December 2003, and the Prosecutor applied for respective arrest warrants against the five top LRA commander – including Dominic Ongwen – on 6 May 2005.

Almost a decade after the ICC initiated investigations in northern Uganda, Ongwen has now become the first LRA commander to face charges in The Hague. As previously documented by the Justice and Reconciliation Project, Ongwen was abducted by the LRA himself, as he was on his way to school, essentially making him a victim of the very crimes he is now facing before an international court. Throughout the years, Ongwen rose through the LRA to eventually become Joseph Kony’s second in command.