July 12, 2011

Human Rights Watch attended the opening of the trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former combatant of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), in Gulu, northern Uganda, on July 11, 2011, before the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the Ugandan High Court.

Following private consultations between the court and both parties to the case, the trial opened to a packed courtroom, with members of the public competing for access. The ICD sat as a panel of three, presided over by Justice Dan Akiiki-Kiiza. The prosecution opened proceedings by seeking to enter an amended indictment. The new indictment extends the counts against Kwoyelo from 12 charges of grave breaches under the fourth Geneva Convention (incorporated in domestic law as the Ugandan Geneva Conventions Act of 1964) to 65 charges in all. It added 53 alternative counts of penal code violations such as murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. The charges were translated into Luo, Kwoyelo's mother tongue, and read to him, and he pled not guilty to all counts.

Kwoyelo's defense counsel signalled to the court that they would raise three preliminary objections to the trial. One would be in regard to the state's failure to apply Uganda's Amnesty Law to Kwoyelo, although thousands of other LRA combatants have been granted amnesty under the act. The second would be to the fact that they had yet to receive full disclosure of the prosecution file, including exculpatory evidence. The third would be to the application of the Geneva Conventions Act to Kwoyelo's alleged conduct. The objections have not been formally lodged and accepted by the court but will be before the court to deliberate on when it resumes on July 25.

Immediately before the trial opened, the ICD held a public information session led by the registrar of the High Court, the judges from the ICD, and the principal judge. Questions posed by the public, which reflected both a wide interest in and general understanding of the significance of the trial, included issues relating to victim and witness protection, victim participation, application of the Geneva Conventions Act, prosecution of gender-based crimes, and Uganda's Amnesty Act. Plans to make the proceedings available on a screen outside the courthouse to enable the large number of interested people to follow the trial are being discussed and should be in place by the time the second hearing takes place.