Thomas Kwoyelo: Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rebel commander on trial

The long-awaited trial of a child soldier-turned-commander in the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has begun in Uganda.

Thomas Kwoyelo faces more than 90 charges – including murder, rape and the recruitment of child soldiers.

He becomes the first LRA commander to be tried by a Ugandan court, marking a watershed moment for the country’s judicial system.

During a court appearance in 2011, Mr Kwoyelo denied the charges against him.

He has spent the last 14 years in pre-trial detention, which analysts partly attribute to the scale and complexity of the alleged crimes.

Joseph Kony formed the LRA in Uganda more than two decades ago, and claimed to be fighting to install a government based on the Bible’s 10 Commandments.

The group was notorious for chopping off people’s limbs and abducting children to use as soldiers and sex slaves. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes by the conflict.

It operated mostly in northern Uganda at first, then shifted to the Democratic Republic of Congo where Mr Kwoyelo was arrested in 2009, and later the Central African Republic.

Friday’s trial is taking place at the International Crimes Division of the High Court in Gulu, seen as Uganda’s answer to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Mr Kwoyelo has previously appeared in court as part of pre-trial hearings, but the case has repeatedly been postponed.

Multiple witnesses are expected to give their accounts of what happened to the court.

Human Rights Watch has previously criticised the delays in this case, and says in general there has been limited accountability for crimes committed during the 25-year conflict including abuses by Ugandan state forces.

In 2021, senior LRA commander Dominic Ongwen was jailed for 25 years by the ICC, who decided not to give him a maximum life sentence because he had been abducted as a child and groomed by rebels who had killed his parents.

Mr Kwoyelo says he too was abducted by LRA fighters in his early teenage years while walking to school.

Thousands of former LRA members have been granted amnesty under a controversial Ugandan law, after leaving and renouncing the rebel group.

But this option was not given to Mr Kwoyelo, prompting accusations the denial was politically motivated.

As his case drags on, there are concerns the funding may run out, causing further delays to the justice his alleged victims so crave.

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