THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A former Ugandan child soldier who became a commander of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army was convicted on Thursday of dozens of crimes, including widespread rape, sexual enslavement, child abductions, torture and murder, including killings of babies.
The International Criminal Court found Dominic Ongwen guilty of 61 out of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. A hearing in mid-April will consider a possible sentence, which could be up to life imprisonment, with a decision expected later this year.
Judges at the court said Ongwen, who himself was taken by the LRA as a young boy, had acted out of free will in committing "innumerable" crimes between 2002 and 2005, commanding several hundred soldiers.
"Mothers were forced to abandon their children in the bush. LRA fighters threw children, including babies, into the bush because the children were crying and making it difficult for their mothers to carry looted goods," Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said, naming the victims and describing the crimes.
"His guilt has been established beyond any reasonable doubt," he said, issuing the verdict after a 3-1/2-year trial that ended in March last year.
Ongwen, wearing a tie and face mask, sat impassively in court, sometimes with his eyes closed, listening as the judgment was read out.
His lawyer has argued that Ongwen's brutal life in the LRA affected his mental health and his capacity to make independent decisions.
Led by fugitive warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA terrorized Ugandans for nearly two decades as it battled the government of President Yoweri Museveni from bases in the north of the country and neighbouring countries. In recent years it has been largely wiped out.
In a legal first, Ongwen was also convicted for the crime of forced pregnancy for atrocities committed against seven women.
"As a result of the sexual and physical violence and the living conditions to which they were submitted, the abducted women and girls suffered severe, barely imaginable physical and mental pain," Schmitt said.
Ongwen ordered the killing and abduction of many civilians during attacks on camps protected by Ugandan government forces and personally took sex slaves, raped women and forced children to fight in hostilities, the court found.
Ongwen, who was detained in 2015, remains in the court's custody.
MIXED FEELINGS IN UGANDA
In Uganda, feelings were divided about how tough the court should be on Ongwen.
Grace Acan, an abductee who lost a child while being held captive, said Ongwen could have followed others and left the LRA when he became an adult, but chose not to.
"Based on the offences that he was found guilty of he deserves it, he needs to be in jail," Acan said.
Louis Lakor, a 25-year-old vehicle mechanic in Gulu town, northern Uganda, who said he too was abducted by the LRA after rebel fighters killed his parents and raped his sister, hoped the court shows Ongwen leniency.
"He was abducted when he was a young boy, he did not join willingly," Lakor told Reuters. "What I think is Dominic Ongwen should be forgiven, because like me also, I killed but I was forgiven."
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said Ongwen had been a victim himself at one stage. "In time, however, he grew into one of the most senior military leaders, fervently committed to the LRA cause with infamous brutality."
Ongwen is the fifth suspect to be convicted for atrocities at the ICC, a court of last resort established in 2002 to prosecute the most serious crimes when other countries are unable or unwilling to do so.
(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam and Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague; Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema in Kampala; Editing by Jon Boyle, William Maclean and Frances Kerry)