Former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel commander, Thomas Kwoyelo, was yesterday charged and remanded to Gulu Prison on 53 charges of crimes against humanity in connection with the two-decade bloody civil war which claimed thousands of lives, caused untold suffering and loss of property in northern Uganda.

He becomes the first former rebel to face trial before the new International Crimes Division of the High Court of Uganda, a division which has its origins in the inconclusive Juba Peace Process of 2006 which, nevertheless, led to the end of the LRA insurgency in northern Uganda.

With handcuffs locking his forearms and chains on his legs, Mr Kwoyelo, who was driven to the fully parked courtroom amidst tight security, appeared before a panel of judges led by Justice Dan Akiiki Kiiza who read the charges. Other judges are Elizabeth Ibanda Nahamya and Alphonse Chigamoi Owiny Dollo.

Mr Kwoyelo, formerly holding the rebel rank of a colonel, is facing charges of murder, willful killing, kidnap with intent to kill and destruction of property in the war of attrition which along the way threatened to destroy an entire culture in especially Acholi sub-region. He denied the charges during the maiden court session.

Trial rejection:
Represented by advocates, Mr Caleb Alaka and Mr John Francis Onyango, Mr Kwoyelo also objected to the trial arguing that he had already applied for amnesty before the country’s Amnesty Commission, which has never been granted.

Mr Alaka invited the court to appreciate the view that the refusal by the State to grant amnesty to his client contravenes Article 21 of the Constitution which provides for equal treatment of all accused persons under the law.

“The accused, while in prison, renounced and abandoned involvement in war/rebellion against the government of the Republic of Uganda pursuant to section 3 of the Amnesty Act Cap 294. We need to first sort out the amnesty issue because other senior LRA commanders benefited from the same initiative,” argued Mr Alaka, promising to write a formal request that will be sent to Director of Public Prosecutions to respond to the queries concerning Mr Kwoyelo’s trial.

Citing the examples of Brigadiers Kenneth Banya and Sam Kolo, Mr Alaka’s arguments prompted the court to adjourn the case to July 25 this year for hearing of the preliminary objections. Justice Kiiza asked the parties to resolve the technicalities to allow the case to be heard, starting August 15.

The State, led by Senior Principal State Attorney, Ms Joan Kagezi, objected to the issues raised by the defence team. Ms Kagezi, assisted by Senior Principal Attorneys George William Byensi and Lino Anguzu, also submitted an amended charge sheet saying the cases were not originally preferred under aegis of the Geneva Convention Act Cap 363, which Uganda was not originally signatory too.

Amnesty denial:
According to Mr Alaka, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions refused to grant his client’s request for amnesty despite receiving a formal notification for a certification of Mr Kwoyelo’s amnesty request from the Principal Legal Officer of the Amnesty Commission.

The allegations:
Prosecution alleges that Mr Kwoyelo committed 53 charges of abduction with intent to murder, causing serious injuries and destruction of property between 1987 and 2005 in his native Pabbo and Lamogi locality.

The State alleges that Mr Kwoyelo’s action, as a commander of others still at large, contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. The convention is one of the four treaties of the Geneva Conventions which form the bedrock of the law of armed conflict. Convention four was adopted in August 1949, and defines humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone, and outlaws the practice of unrestrained warfare.

In 1993, the United Nations Security Council adopted a report from the Secretary-General and a Commission of Experts which concluded that the Geneva Conventions had passed into the body of customary international law, thus making them binding on non-signatories to the Conventions, like the LRA, whenever they engage in armed conflicts.

Mr Kwoyelo looked composed during three-hour session. His mother, Ms Rojolina Oyela, two brothers and a sister appeared in court. Ms Oyela said she was optimistic that her son would be released from prison because he is not guilty. “I am leaving everything in the hands of God because I know my son was forced to join the rebellion,” she said in an interview.

When the LRA shifted operations from northern Uganda and southern Sudan to the jungles of eastern Congo, Mr Kwoyelo was captured after he was injured in a firefight with UPDF troops in March 2009.

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Source:  The Daily Monitor – Online