A former fighter with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that LRA leader Joseph Kony ordered a unit to kill his deputy, Vincent Otti.
The testimony of Witness P-233 is the second time during the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander, that a witness has provided details about the killing of Otti, which took place at least nine years ago.
Otti was named in the original ICC arrest warrant issued in 2005 for Kony, Ongwen, and two other LRA commanders, Raska Lukwiya and Okot Odiambo. The ICC has declared Lukwiya and Odiambo dead and terminated the cases against them.
Ongwen surrendered to Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic in January 2015, who handed him over to American troops there, who in turn handed him over to the ICC. That month Ongwen made his initial appearance before Pre-Trial Chamber II and then the chamber separated his case from the rest. Pre-Trial Chamber II confirmed 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity against him in March 2016. Ongwen pleaded not guilty to all counts in December 2016 before Trial Chamber IX.
Witness P-233 told the court about Otti’s killing when he was asked about Kony’s character by Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer.
“I only started seeing Kony as an atrocious person when we were in Garamba (in Congo) when he issued the instructions for the killing of Vincent Otti. That was the first I saw him issue orders to kill. But I did not know he was such an aggressive person,” the witness said.
“Did we understand that you witnessed Kony issue the order for killing Vincent Otti?” asked Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.
“Yes, you have understood it well,” replied Witness P-233.
“Please describe to us what happened in more detail, what he (Kony) has said,” Judge Schmitt said.
Witness P-233 said Kony ordered a unit called Apple–which reported exclusively to him–to kill Otti. The witness said Kony gave the order to Charles Arop, the commander of Apple. He said Otti was called to meet Kony. Witness P-233 said when Otti went to see Kony, Kony supposedly told Otti to go and shower and then return since they were going to carry out a pre-battle ritual. The witness said Otti went, showered, and returned but he did not find Kony at what the witness called Kony’s home.
Instead, Otti found other commanders there, including Odiambo, the witness testified. Witness P-233 said Kony had hidden somewhere behind his abode. He told the court the Apple unit fighters “cocked their guns and then had him (Otti) arrested there and then. There was very tight security.”
The witness said Kony was informed and asked what he wanted them to do next. He said Kony told them to kill Otti, “because if I come and I see (Otti), I will become merciful.”
Witness P-233 said he was told that the people ordered to kill Otti fired their guns several times but their guns jammed each time. Witness P-233 said he was told that Otti then said, “I have now accepted that they kill me,” and then the fighters were able to shoot him. He said Otti was killed together with four or five other commanders but the witness did not name them.
The witness said that he had heard Kony wanted Otti killed because Kony suspected Otti of plotting to kill Kony because Kony was seen as opposed to concluding peace talks with the Ugandan government. Witness P-233 told the court he was told an unidentified foreigner visited Otti and told him that since Otti was committed to the peace talks he should eliminate Kony, who was hindering the peace talks.
Witness P-233 was referring to peace talks mediated by the then autonomous regional government of Southern Sudan between 2006 and 2008. As part of the conditions for those peace talks, the LRA assembled in two places: Garamba in Congo and Ri-Kwamba which is on the border of Congo, then Southern Sudan and Central African Republic.
In March this year, when Witness P-205 testified about Otti’s killing, he said Otti was killed because it was suspected he wanted to escape the LRA.
On Monday, Witness P-233 said that after Otti was killed, Kony came up with plans and decisions without consulting anyone.
Odongo asked the witness whether he thought Kony began making his own decisions about the LRA because he no longer trusted other commanders.
“Yes, it could be exactly because at that time all the other commanders were scared. Nobody was free to suggest ideas to him because you could not be sure how he would take it,” replied the witness.
The witness testified that at one point Ongwen was the top commander of the LRA in Uganda. He testified that once he went with other members of his brigade, Stockree, to collect ammunition from Ongwen, though he did not state the year. He said that at the time Ongwen was the commander of another brigade, Sinia.
Odongo asked Witness P-233 to describe Ongwen’s character.
“Can you tell the court about Dominic Ongwen? The person of Dominic Ongwen?” asked Odongo.
“Regarding Dominic Ongwen, well, I will not just be speaking well of him or supporting him. In his own life, he’s been living well with people. He would really ensure that his soldiers are happy. He would never give instructions for killing civilians. His soldiers loved him very much. Even if the battle ahead was a very difficult one they would be willing to go ahead. I personally loved him,” said the witness.
On Friday, prosecution lawyer Shkelsen Zeneli asked the witness which specific area of the LRA Ongwen commanded.
“You told us Dominic was in charge (of the LRA). Can you tell us which specific area?” he asked.
“It’s very difficult to determine an area … he was in charge of the people who were in Uganda at that time,” replied the witness.
“Where were the other senior commanders of the LRA?” asked Zeneli.
“At the time I guess most of them or the rest of them had gone to Sudan,” answered the witness.
Witness P-233, who said he had been with the LRA for 11 years, told the court he decided to escape the LRA in 2013 when he witnessed two commanders killed on Kony’s orders. He said at the time he was under Kony’s direct command and they were based in Darfur, Sudan.
Witness P-233 was granted protective measures by the court, including having his face distorted in broadcasts of the court’s proceedings. The witness was also given assurances that he would not be pursued for any self-incriminating evidence he gave the court so long as it was truthful. In addition, he had a court-appointed legal adviser, Karlijn van der Voort, to assist him whenever he gave self-incriminating evidence. Whenever Witness P-233 gave self-incriminating evidence, his testimony would be closed to the public.
The witness concluded his testimony on Monday. Witness P-172 will begin testifying on Tuesday.