A former Ugandan rebel who was abducted as a child by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army and later rose to be a commander of the militia was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity on Thursday at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The defendant, Dominic Ongwen, was a 9-year-old on the way to his village school in the summer of 1988 when armed L.R.A. fighters grabbed him and spirited him off to their camp, where they whipped and threatened him and began training him to be a child soldier.
Now in his early 40s, he faces life in prison on charges including rape, forced marriages, torture, enslavement and multiple murders. His case has stirred debate among lawyers and international law experts, because the young Mr. Ongwen was a victim of some of the same crimes he would come to be accused of, including the recruitment of child soldiers under the age of 15.
But in their decision, the judges did not cite his childhood experiences as a mitigating factor.
His is the first trial of a top commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that waged a violent campaign across Uganda and several neighboring countries from the late 1980s until recently. The case brought to light details about how the fighters brutalized and mutilated their perceived enemies. More than 4,000 victims were represented by lawyers as victims of Mr. Ongwen’s crimes in the case.
When the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, announced the verdict, he read out long list of cruelties that he said Mr. Ongwen had ordered.
“He gave instructions to loot food, abduct people, burn down the camp and the barracks,” Judge Schmitt said. “An old woman who could not carry her load was strangled and had her throat cut,” he added. “His men shot, beat and abducted civilians in the head and the face to make sure they were dead.”
Some children were enclosed in a bag and beaten to death, the judge said.
“A witness saw bodies hacked in a barbaric way,” he added. He also said the defendant had been described by his subordinates as an extremely skillful commander whom they loved to follow.
During the four-year trial, Mr. Ongwen’s lawyer argued his client suffered from mental disorders and confusion about his identity. He said that his client had been so brutalized when militia fighters turned him into “a fighting machine” that he never learned to distinguish right from wrong, and that made it more difficult for him to control his behavior.
The judge, however, said that Mr. Ongwen “did not commit any crimes under duress.”
Human Rights Watch estimates that the L.R.A. kidnapped at least 25,000 children in Uganda alone. Fighting between the rebels and government troops displaced almost two million people from their homes in the country from 1987 to 2006.
The rebels, driven out of Uganda in 2006, also terrorized villagers by looting property and animals and burning houses in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. A United Nations report estimated that 450,000 people fled their homes in those countries.
The prosecution pointed out that Mr. Ongwen had never tried to escape his captors, unlike so many other boys and men. Instead, prosecutors said, he followed orders and relished his role, climbing the ranks to become one of the rebels’ top commanders. Moreover, he refused to be examined by the prosecution’s mental health experts.
He was found guilty of personally leading raids in which his brigade looted property and animals, set fire to homes with people inside them, killed babies, and abducted adults and children to be used as forced labor. Boys were trained as porters and fighters, and girls were exploited as sex slaves and domestic workers.
The verdict capped a trial in which scores of witnesses — including former child soldiers and their victims — gave their versions of Mr. Ongwen’s role in the rebel army’s campaigns against thousands of villagers whom the militiamen saw as government supporters and enemies.
“This trial is a milestone for the victims of so much brutality,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch, who has long studied the rebel group. “Justice is so hard to achieve. This is the first opportunity for people to see these notorious crimes recorded and judged before a court.”
The L.R.A.’s bloody rampages and its elusive leader, Joseph Kony, became notorious. In the region, many admired and feared Mr. Kony, who claimed to have mystical powers.
Mr. Ongwen’s fighting career lasted more than 25 years, but his trial focused on attacks on refugee camps in northern Uganda from 2002 to 2005, because prosecutors had the strongest evidence from those events.
The trial did not cover the group’s many subsequent attacks or its rampages through four other countries in East and Central Africa.
Thursday’s proceedings, streamed from the court, were eagerly awaited in viewing sites set up in northern Uganda, where many communities were affected by the fighting. Some groups have regularly followed the trial via special radio broadcasts.
They heard prosecutors play recordings of radio intercepts and satellite calls by the rebels, and heard details from military logbooks and intelligence reports provided by the Ugandan government. Both the prosecution and the defense brought forward scores of witnesses who spoke of their experiences as former fighters or as rebels’ forced wives who bore children against their will.
The judge, in reading out the verdict, dwelled at length on the rebel army’s many crimes against women and those particularly by Mr. Ongwen, who personally distributed women to his unit’s fighters.
The judge said seven women had testified about having been assigned as wives to Mr. Ongwen. The women said that they had been threatened with death if they tried to escape, and that they had been beaten with sticks.
In the past, critics have accused the I.C.C. of bias in pursuing more cases in Africa than elsewhere. But the prosecution of L.R.A. commanders was explicitly requested by President Yoweri Musevi of Uganda, whose government the rebels sought to overthrow.
The court has issued warrants for five L.R.A. leaders, including Mr. Ongwen. Three have since died, leaving Mr. Kony as the only one still at large.
Invisible Children, an activist group that tracks Mr. Kony’s activities, has said that he remains a threat to civilians in central and East Africa, even as his power has waned and his group has splintered. He was last seen in 2020 in a remote region of South Sudan.
The arrival of Mr. Ongwen in 2015 was an unexpected windfall for the court. He had long been part of Mr. Kony’s inner circle but had apparently fallen of favor.
The United States has offered up to $5 million as a reward for information leading to Mr. Kony’s arrest.