By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
Uganda’s Constitutional Court ruling that Thomas Kwoyelo, former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel commander, is entitled to amnesty like any other person has sparked a heated debate. Kwoyelo’s case which would have been the first domestic war crimes trial has technically hit a snag, say city lawyers. The Uganda five-judge panel ruled that Kwoyelo was entitled to amnesty for any crimes he committed during the conflict, in which 30,000 people died and some two million were displaced. Kwoyelo had been charged with 53 counts of murder and other crimes.
As his lawyers went to the Constitutional Court the question was why make Kwoyelo, an individual, account for the crimes LRA committed under his command instead of giving him amnesty as it was the case with his colleagues Brig Kenneth Banya, and Sam Kolo. That has been the crux of the matter. Elders from the region say the bigger pursuit should be peace and reconciliation not revenge. And they view trial of former rebels who denounce rebellion and ask for amnesty as willing to turn over a new chapter.
Amnesty International, a human rights body based in the U.S, has issued a strong statement disagreeing with the Court decision. But Kwoyelo’s defence argues that he is just another victim of LRA war so he deserves amnesty. The defence argues that the leaders of LRA are known and it is unfair to blame Kwoyelo individually for rebel group’s crimes. Kwoyelo goes on to argue that he was abducted at the age of 14, where it was the responsibility of government to protect him from LRA abduction and provide an atmosphere where he like other Ugandan children would enjoy life in a secure environment. Yet the same government turns out to prosecute him. The LRA abducted thousands of children turned them into child soldiers, sex slaves and killers of their own people and families.
Amnesty International said that no matter what, justice has to be done for the LRA war victims adding that all LRA rebels don’t deserve amnesty but trial in courts of law. “What we are witnessing here is pervasive impunity for crimes and human rights violations. It is high time Uganda carried out an investigation into all crimes committed during the 20-year conflict. Neither Thomas Kwoyelo, nor others accused of committing war crimes should be granted amnesty,” the rights body said in a statement.
Thomas Kwoyelo was charged with murder, willful killing, kidnap with intent to kill, aggravated robbery and destruction of property and other offences during an attack he allegedly commanded in northern Uganda’s Amuru district during the conflict that began in 1986. He denied the charges.
So, who should account for the thousands of people who were killed, maimed, and displaced from their homes during the two-decade old LRA conflict? Should we be pursuing justice, accountability or amnesty?