A Lord’s Resistance Army rebel leader charged with 53 counts of murder and other crimes, including kidnapping and robbery, has walked free from court in Uganda. It was the first time ever a prosecution had been brought against one of the rebels and the abrupt end is a major blow to prosecutors.
By Arne Doornebal
Uganda’s Constitutional Court ruled that Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) commander Thomas Kwoyelo should be given amnesty ending the trial which started three months ago.
The LRA started fighting in Northern Uganda in 1987; abducting children as child soldiers or ‘wives’ for the commanders. Tens of thousands of people died as the rebel group held the north of the country under a reign of terror for more than 20 years, and resulted in two million people being displaced.
In 2006 the movement left Uganda and began causing havoc in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and northern DR Congo, where Kwoyelo was arrested in 2009.
Despite the ruling, Kwoyelo will not be released immediately, that is not for the court to decide only the International Crimes Division (ICD) can grant Kwoyelo his freedom. “If they delay we will apply for bail,” says Kwoyelo’s lawyer Francis Onyango.
Thursday’s sudden end to the historic trial is a set back for the ICD. The Kwolyelo case was its first case and the prosecution was eager to see it through.
The body was set up in the wake of the failed peace talks with the LRA between 2006 and 2008. It was established to try the rebel group’s second tier of commanders. The ringleaders – including leader Joesph Kony - were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. At the same time the ICC works closely together with Uganda’s own court, sharing information and training material.
Kwoyelo was ultimately saved from prosecution by Uganda’s Amnesty Act, which was implemented in the year 2000. The Amnesty Act says that everybody who is involved in an armed rebellion against the Ugandan state and renounces it can be given amnesty.
“Our entire case was about equal treatment,” a jubilant Kwoyelo lawyer Frances Onyango says. “Almost thirteen thousand LRA members were given amnesty under the Amnesty Act, so it is perhaps no surprise that Kwoyelo also gets it.”
During the hearing, last month, the prosecution had argued that the Amnesty Act should be declared unconstitutional, in order to ‘end impunity.’ But according to Onyango it is a fallacy to talk of impunity in Uganda:
“Today’s ruling is a victory for all child soldiers and for all the people in Northern Uganda. Because this war was not as simple as people want to believe. Mr Kwoyelo was himself abducted at the age of 13 and forced to fight with the rebels. So he is the victim here.”
Onyango also made claims that Kwoyelo had been tortured during detention prior to the trial adding that he intends to sue the state.