THE HAGUE, Netherlands – An alleged senior commander in the brutal militia of fugitive warlord Joseph Kony pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 70 charges including murder, rape, sexual enslavement and using child soldiers during the group's insurgency in northern Uganda.
Dominic Ongwen, whom prosecutors say is a commander in the Lord's Resistance Army, listened intently and wrote notes as an official at the International Criminal Court in The Hague read out the 70 charges.
"In the name of God, I deny all these charges," he replied.
The chief prosecutor said Ongwen was a former child soldier who rose swiftly through the ranks because of his reputation as a ruthless killer.
"The evidence shows that Dominic Ongwen was a murderer and a rapist," Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told judges.
On the eve of the trial, Ongwen and his lawyers claimed he did not properly understand the charges and called for psychological tests to establish if he was mentally fit to plead. Judges ordered him to enter a plea anyway.
Rights groups welcomed the case as a long-overdue chance to deliver justice to some victims of the Lord's Resistance Army after its nearly three-decade insurgency in northern Uganda.
"The LRA leadership is reviled worldwide for its brutality against Africans, but never before has an LRA commander faced trial," said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch.
The trial comes as some African nations are expressing distrust of the court, which they accuse of unfairly targeting the continent. South Africa, Burundi and Gambia recently announced they would quit the court.
Bensouda said Ongwen's own traumatic past as a 14-year-old boy abducted from his family and conscripted into Kony's army could be a mitigating factor for judges considering a sentence if he is convicted, but, she added, it "cannot begin to amount to a defense or a reason not to hold him to account for the choice that he made: The choice to embrace the murderous violence used by the LRA and make it a hallmark of the attacks carried out by his soldiers."
Ongwen is charged specifically with commanding assaults on four camps for internally displaced people in northern Uganda.
Highlighting the brutality of LRA fighters, Bensouda said they murdered residents, torched their homes and enslaved survivors to carry looted animals.
"Nursing mothers whose babies slowed up their progress or who simply cried too loudly watched as their babies were callously killed or thrown into the bush and left behind," she said.
Bensouda showed judges a video of the aftermath of one attack, in which smoldering huts and bodies — including a charred baby and a disemboweled child — could be seen.
Bensouda said she will call former child soldiers and forced brides to testify about the brutality they suffered at the hands of Ongwen and his forces.
One former child soldier will testify about a particularly horrific attack, Bensouda said.
"Mr. Ongwen ordered this boy and others to kill an old man by biting him and then stoning him to death," she said.
Ongwen, first indicted in 2005 and sent to the court early last year after surrendering to U.S. forces in Central African Republic, is the only member of Kony's army in the court's custody. Kony remains free despite years of efforts in northern Uganda and neighboring countries to capture him.
The LRA rebellion, which originated in Uganda in the 1980s as a tribal uprising against the government, is one of Africa's longest and most brutal insurgencies. At the peak of its powers, the group razed villages, raped women and amputated limbs. It is especially notorious for recruiting boys to fight and for taking girls as sex slaves.
After opening statements this week, the trial will pause until next year when the first witnesses will testify, including possibly a girl who told investigators about Ongwen's repeated rapes of sex slaves.
"Dominic was the worst when it came to young girls," Bensouda said, citing the witness. "He has sex with them at a very young age."