(Brussels) – The first major International Criminal Court (ICC) hearing for a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader is an important step for accountability for grave crimes committed in northern Uganda, Human Rights Watch said today.

The confirmation of charges for Dominic Ongwen, a one-time child soldier who became a senior LRA commander, will begin on January 21, 2016, in The Hague and is anticipated to last five days. At the proceeding, ICC judges will determine if the prosecutor has enough evidence for the case to go to trial.

Dominic Ongwen

“The LRA is a notoriously brutal force that for decades has attacked civilians across a wide swath of East and Central Africa,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The ICC case against Dominic Ongwen is the first of its kind for LRA crimes and helps to show the ICC’s unique role as the global court of last resort.”

Led by the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA has committed atrocities against civilians for nearly three decades. The armed group has abducted tens of thousands of children for use as soldiers and sexual slaves and killed and maimed thousands of civilians in remote regions of northern Uganda, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Ongwen himself was abducted as a child.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in northern Uganda, where the group originated. Initial charges centered on alleged crimes committed as part of an attack in May 2004, on the Lukodi internally displaced people’s camp in Uganda. In September 2015, the prosecutor indicated she was expanding the charges to include murder, torture, enslavement, and pillage as part of attacks on four such camps in Uganda: Pajule, Odek, and Abok camps, along with Lukodi. Charges of persecution, sexual and gender-based crimes, conscription, and use of child solders committed in northern Uganda were also added.

During the confirmation of charges proceeding, Ongwen will be entitled to protections to ensure the fairness of the proceedings and his rights as an accused. These include the right to a lawyer and the presumption of innocence.

There have been no trials involving charges of serious crimes committed by LRA fighters before any domestic or international court, though charges are pending against an LRA fighter, Thomas Kwoyelo, in Uganda.

The ICC has issued warrants for four other LRA leaders, including Kony. Kony remains at large, while the three other suspects are believed to have been killed.

Given the extent of serious crimes allegedly committed by the LRA outside Uganda, the ICC prosecutor should consider expanding the charges for other areas under the court’s jurisdiction, such as Congo and the Central African Republic, if supported by evidence, Human Rights Watch said.

In December 2009, troops under Ongwen’s command allegedly killed at least 345 civilians and abducted another 250, including at least 80 children, during a four-day rampage in the Makombo area of northeastern Congo. This was one of the worst massacres during the LRA’s long, brutal history, Human Rights Watch said.

According to available research, the LRA abducted Ongwen from northern Uganda into their ranks around age 10 and gave him military training. He rose to become a senior commander implicated in serious abuses across Central Africa.

Judicial proceedings against Ongwen raise important issues regarding his status as a former child soldier, though the crimes he is charged with were committed as an adult. These are factors that could be relevant to his legal defense and mitigation in possible sentencing in the event of trial and conviction.

“The charges against Ongwen include LRA atrocities in northern Uganda, but don’t cover thousands of victims elsewhere in Africa who also suffered at the hands of the LRA,” Keppler said. “The ICC prosecutor should consider expanding the charges where there is evidence of LRA crimes in other countries to capture the breadth of abuse.”