Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison

FILE PHOTO: Dominic Ongwen of Uganda sits in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague
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By Anthony Deutsch and Elias Biryabarema

AMSTERDAM/KAMPALA (Reuters) -The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Thursday sentenced a former Ugandan child soldier who became a commander of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) to 25 years in prison for crimes including rape, sexual enslavement, child abduction, torture and murder.

Dominic Ongwen, who was taken into ICC custody in 2015, was convicted in February of 61 out of 70 alleged crimes. In many, the victims were women and children.

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said the panel had considered sentencing Ongwen to life imprisonment, the court's harshest punishment, but decided against it due to his own suffering.

Ongwen, who is in his early 40s, sat in court in a grey suit and red tie looking impassive as the decision was read.

He is appealing his conviction.

Led by fugitive warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA terrorized Ugandans for nearly 20 years as it battled the government of President Yoweri Museveni from bases in northern Uganda and neighbouring countries. It has now largely been wiped out.

Ongwen was abducted as a 9-year-old and forced into a life of violence after the group killed his parents.

'THEY SHOULD HAVE BEEN KIND'

A fellow former child soldier, Louis Lakor, who was kidnapped by the LRA when he was seven but escaped after eight months, said the court ruling was too harsh.

"Dominic was following orders. Dominic was abducted when he was young, they should have been kind and fair to him. They should have given him like ten years," Lakor told Reuters from the town of Gulu in north Uganda.

He said LRA rebels had also killed his parents, raped and killed a sister and forced him to kill another sister. "When you're with the LRA they force you to do what they want ... they train you to kill," he added.

The judges, however, said Ongwen had not been under duress, and himself gave orders as an adult to commit heinous crimes independently from LRA leader Kony. He did not leave the LRA when he had the opportunity to do so, they said.

Ongwen 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," Judge Schmitt said.

Prosecutors had demanded he get at least 20 years in prison, while his defence argued he should get no more than a 10-year sentence because he was traumatized as a child soldier.[nL1N2M80VI, nL8N2M72F0]

But the crimes were so grave, including "instances where murder was committed by burning people alive in houses and the harsh treatment of children," that a longer sentence was fitting, the court found.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Bart Meijer; Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Steve Orlofsky)