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War Crimes Trial Continues in Uganda After Long Delays

Avoid Further Delays in Thomas Kwoyelo Case and Ensure Remedies for Victims

Thomas Kwoyelo at the opening of his trial at the International Crimes Division of the High Court in Gulu, Uganda on September 24, 2018. © 2018 Patrick Uma

The defense stage of Thomas Kwoyelo’s trial finally began in Uganda on January 19, 2023, nearly 13 years after the war crimes case against the alleged commander in the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) began.

This trial provides a rare opportunity for justice for victims of the two-decade war between the LRA and the Ugandan military.

Kwoyelo is being tried at the International Crimes Division (ICD), a division of Uganda's High Court that was established in 2008 to try international crimes. He is accused of committing crimes against humanity and war crimes, among others, against the Northern Ugandan civilian population.

The ICD allows victims to participate in proceedings and provide input through their lawyers with the possibility of compensation to victims in case of guilty verdicts.

Kwoyelo, who was captured by Ugandan military forces in 2009, has been in detention so long that in 2018, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights ordered the Ugandan government to compensate him for failing to hold his trial within a reasonable time. The government has yet to do so.

Court officials have attributed delays to lack of funding, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the “complexity of the case.” By contrast, the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has also conducted investigations in Uganda, convicted former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, who was arrested in late 2014, in 2021. Ongwen’s conviction was the first ever anywhere in the world for LRA crimes.

Accountability for LRA war victims has been painfully inadequate and opportunities for improvement are increasingly slim, making processes in Uganda all the more important.

While the government approved a transitional justice policy in 2019 to inform legislation and government policy for reparations, truth telling, and reconciliation processes, it is yet to implement these measures.

Kwoyelo and LRA leader Joseph Kony,  are the only individuals facing criminal charges for crimes committed during the war. Kony is wanted by the ICC and remains at large. No one who served with the Ugandan government  during the war has been publicly charged,  domestically or internationally, for grave crimes committed. ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan announced in 2023 that his office has completed investigations in the country, meaning that he will not pursue additional arrest warrants.

This lengthy trial has had consequences for both Kwoyelo and the many victims of the conflict in Northern Uganda awaiting justice. Uganda should compensate Kwoyelo and the ICD should avoid any further delays.

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