A Ugandan rebel commander accused of organizing massacres and kidnapping thousands of children pleaded not guilty on Tuesday as his trial opened in The Hague, more than 11 years after the International Criminal Court ordered his arrest.
The commander, Dominic Ongwen, was the subject of a decade-long manhunt until he turned himself in last year, possibly because he feared being killed by his superior, Joseph Kony, founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a notorious rebel group in central Africa. The Lord’s Resistance Army killed more than 100,000 people, abducted 60,000 to 100,000 children, and displaced more than 2.5 million civilians in four African countries from 1987 to 2012, according to a United Nations estimate.
Mr. Ongwen, Mr. Kony and three other Lord’s Resistance Army commanders were the first five people ever charged by the criminal court in The Hague, in 2005. The other three have since died; Mr. Kony, who long claimed to be a prophet with mystical powers, is said to be in hiding near South Sudan.
Over the past few years, Mr. Kony’s force is reported to have dwindled to 100 or so men. But the Obama administration once considered him such a threat to peace in the region that it offered a reward of up to $5 million for his capture, even though the United States is not a member of the International Criminal Court. The reign of terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army spread beyond Uganda to southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
Mr. Ongwen was brought to the court early last year, after being detained in the Central African Republic by American Special Forces who had been helping to track Mr. Kony. Mr. Ongwen, long a top commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, is believed to have fallen from favor with Mr. Kony and to have been held captive by him, before breaking free and eventually handing himself in. Some analysts said it was likely Mr. Ongwen’s escape and surrender had been motivated by the fear that Mr. Kony would kill him, as he had done with others.
Mr. Ongwen told the court last year that he had been born in Uganda in 1975 and that he had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army when he was 14. People who knew him as a child soldier said he had been taught that his destiny was to fight for the rights of the Acholi people, a group to which both he and Mr. Kony belonged. He rose to become one of Mr. Kony’s trusted commanders, joining the “control altar,” as the warlord’s headquarters were called.
Mr. Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with atrocities committed in Northern Uganda, many of them victimizing the Acholi people he was said to have felt called to protect.
As his trial opened, with Mr. Ongwen in a court-issued gray suit, an official read out the list of charges against him, including murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery and conscription of children under 15.
“In the name of God, I deny all these charges,” he replied.
But he appeared not to understand the case against him, telling the judges, “I read and understood the documents, but not the charges because they are against the L.R.A. The L.R.A. is Joseph Kony, the leader. But I am not the L.R.A.”
After Tuesday’s session, the trial is expected to adjourn until January, when the prosecution will start presenting evidence. Two teams of lawyers representing close to 4,000 victims will also address Tuesday’s session.
The unexpected emergence of Mr. Ongwen last year came at a delicate moment for the court in The Hague, which was under growing criticism from governments in Africa, which charged that it was focusing almost exclusively on that continent. Since then, Burundi, Gambia and South Africa have begun proceedings to withdraw from the court, although Gambia’s newly elected government has said it plans to reverse that decision.
But the case against the Lord’s Resistance Army commanders was explicitly requested more than a decade ago by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, whose government the rebels had sought to overthrow. Mr. Museveni met Luis Moreno Ocampo, then the court’s chief prosecutor, in London and offered his government’s full cooperation. The prosecutor, who at the time was still assembling his team, announced with some fanfare in 2004 that it was opening its first case.
Prosecution documents say the Ugandan government provided investigators with thousands of pages of log books and intelligence reports, along with recordings of radio intercepts and satellite calls of the rebels.
Investigators interviewed former Lord’s Resistance Army fighters who had deserted, as well as men and women who had been captured as children. They said that boys were drugged and trained to become killers, and that girls were often raped and given to fighters as wives. In a public radio broadcast in 2002, according to one prosecution document, Mr. Kony admitted to abducting children, saying “that’s the way we recruit, the same way Museveni was doing it.”
Prosecutors said seven women had given statements saying that Mr. Ongwen had raped them as young girls, one when she was 10 years old.
Mr. Ongwen’s lawyers are expected to argue that their client was himself kidnapped, brutalized and brainwashed while still a boy, and that he is therefore a victim rather than a criminal. They have said that much of the prosecution’s evidence is unreliable and that the court’s arrest warrant for Mr. Ongwen contributed to his notoriety.
Prosecutors say that Mr. Ongwen’s forcible conscription as a child soldier may be a mitigating factor in his case, but that he is nonetheless responsible for crimes he committed as an adult.
Mr. Ongwen’s lawyers have told the court that they will not make an opening statement and that they will make their case only after the prosecution finishes.