The international criminal court has sentenced a former militia leader and child soldier from Uganda to 25 years in prison after he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in a landmark judgment.
The presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, said the panel of judges had considered sentencing Dominic Ongwen to life imprisonment, the court’s harshest punishment, but had sided against it due to the defendant’s own personal suffering.
Ongwen was convicted in February on charges of murder, rape, sexual slavery, abduction and torture committed as a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a violent cult which waged a bloody campaign in Uganda and neighbouring countries from the mid-1980s until only a few years ago.
The court rejected defence arguments that because Ongwen was abducted by the LRA at the age of 10 he had committed any crimes under duress.
The 41-year-old was “a perpetrator who wilfully brought tremendous suffering upon his victims, however, also a perpetrator who himself has previously endured extreme suffering at the hands of the group of which he later became a prominent member and leader”, Schmitt said on Thursday as he announced the sentence.
The case is one of the most momentous in the ICC’s 18-year history, but has raised difficult questions of responsibility and blame. The tribunal’s decision will have a significant impact on future prosecutions for crimes against humanity, experts say.
Lawyers for Ongwen, the first former child soldier to be in the dock in The Hague, argued that he should get no more than a 10-year sentence because he was traumatised when the LRA abducted him at the age of 10.
In his first appearance in December 2016, Ongwen said he would plead not guilty, telling the court he was “one of the people against whom the LRA committed atrocities” and should not be on trial.
However, judges described Ongwen as an extremely capable fighter and commander who planned attacks carefully, assessed risks, and was repeatedly praised by other commanders. They said he did not face the threat of death or serious harm if he disobeyed orders, and did not take many opportunities to leave the LRA but rather rose in rank and position.
Led by Joseph Kony, who claimed to be religiously inspired, the LRA waged war across five countries in east and central Africa. The group relied on the abduction of largely defenceless villagers and refugees, including children, to provide labour and combatants.
Girls were forced into sexual and domestic slavery while boys were forced to take up arms.
Most of the charges against Ongwen focus on attacks on refugee camps between 2002 and 2005. One of the worst involved a four-day raid by the LRA on camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in December 2009, in which about 350 civilians were killed and another 250, including at least 80 children, were abducted.
The court found that Ongwen was not in subordination to Kony, and had himself “abducted innumerable children under 15 years of age and forced them to serve as fighters”.
The children were regularly severely beaten and forced to witness killings before being trained in fighting skills. Recruits were not taught to distinguish between civilians or combatants, and many were killed during operations commanded by Ongwen, who told one witness: “You call those kids children, I call them my soldiers.”
During the lengthy trial, the court heard harrowing testimony of how young women who had been abducted by the LRA were threatened with execution if they refused to become the “wife” of a commander and were repeatedly raped.
Witnesses described “old men” assaulting them when they were “just a child”, and how Ongwen used his authority to distribute “wives” to other fighters.
“I did not want to be with him … I was too young,” one told the court.
“He was the commander … If I refused I would be killed,” another witness said. “I all the time saw girls who made mistakes being killed. I was very scared.”
Of the five senior LRA leaders indicted by the ICC more than a decade ago, only Ongwen and Kony are still alive. Despite a $5m (£3.5m) reward for information leading to his capture, Kony remains elusive.
A total of 4,065 victims were granted the right to participate in the proceedings and hundreds gathered at screenings of the trial proceedings in northern Uganda to watch the verdict.
But the reaction of some victims of the LRA underlined the complexity of the case, raising difficult issues of blame and responsibility.
Joseph Akweyu Manoba, a Ugandan lawyer appointed by the ICC to represent 1,500 of Ongwen’s victims, told the Guardian at the start of the trial that not one of them believed Ongwen was himself a victim.
Some described Ongwen as “not a bad person” who was “kidnapped as a child like all of us and the circumstances made him this way”.
The case is important for the embattled ICC, which was founded in 2002 to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes that local criminal systems cannot deal with. The court has a staff of nearly 1,000 and an annual budget of more than $180m but has struggled to secure convictions in a series of high-profile cases.