KAMPALA, Uganda – Uganda may give amnesty to a top Joseph Kony associate arrested last week, a government official said, in an arrangement that would disappoint activists who want Caesar Acellam tried for Lord's Resistance Army atrocities.
Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga said late Monday the circumstances of Acellam's arrest — whether he was captured or gave himself up — would be crucial to a possible decision to pardon the most powerful LRA commander to have left the bush.
"First, we are waiting for him to be brought back to Uganda to get clarity on the circumstances under which he was captured," Kiyonga said. "Let's wait. We assess each (amnesty) case on its merit. We are waiting for him to arrive and then we will take a cool-headed decision."
Acellam is being held in Nzara, a village in South Sudan that is the administrative hub of Uganda's anti-Kony operation. The Ugandans are being advised by U.S. Special Forces sent last year by President Barack Obama to help regional governments eliminate LRA leaders.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the top U.N. official for children and armed conflict, said in a statement Monday that Acellam should have his day in court.
"I am encouraged by the capture of one of the worst perpetrators of child rights violations, and hope that the Ugandan authorities would not apply amnesty but instead bring him to justice," Coomaraswamy said in the statement. "The arrest and subsequent prosecution of Acellam would send a strong message to the LRA leadership that they will be held accountable for their actions."
Uganda has an amnesty law under which some former LRA combatants have walked free after cooperating with authorities. The law, which can seem to favor former rebels at the expense of their many victims, has created tension between justice and peace in a country eager to move on from decades of a brutal insurgency that traumatized millions.
The International Criminal Court in 2005 indicted five LRA bosses, including Kony, a self-styled mystic who in the mid-1980s started his rebel group in hopes of ruling Uganda according to the Ten Commandments.
Kony and his top associates are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The LRA is notorious for abducting children and turning them into fighters or sex slaves, crimes that the U.S. advocacy group Invisible Children emphasized in its viral YouTube video that helped focus international attention on Kony.
Although Acellam is not among those indicted by the ICC, Ugandan officials say he was one of Kony's top military strategists. He claims a high-school education, and in his last days as a rebel he wore the epaulets of a major general.
Details of his arrest have been murky, with Ugandan army officials repeatedly denying suggestions the rebel commander turned himself in after weeks, and possibly months, of negotiations with the Ugandan army.
A Ugandan army official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter, said Ugandan troops simply "picked up" Acellam from his location in the jungle, suggesting Acellam surrendered.
Some analysts have expressed surprise that Acellam, who once served as Kony's intelligence chief and who says he spent more than 25 years in the jungle, was moving with his wife and baby when he fell into what the Ugandan army says was a carefully planned ambush. They say Acellam had long been on a list of possible LRA defectors after falling out with Kony over the possibility of making peace with the Ugandan government.
"The fact that Acellam has left means only radicals are left in the bush," said Angelo Izama, a political analyst with a Kampala-based security think tank called Fanaka Kwawote.
Ugandan officials say there are about 200 LRA members still at large, mostly in Congo. The LRA no longer has a presence in Uganda.