Friday, November 11, 2011

Procrastination at a War Crimes Trial--Kwoyelo's last day in court

Photo credit to JRP

This morning I woke up with one goal--I would finish a draft of my next chapter. Then I got a phone call that confirmed the rumor I'd heard yesterday: what was expected to be the last day of former LRA Commander Col. Thomas Kwoyelo's trial would be today. All of the International Crimes Division of the High Court in Uganda and the accused were on their way from Kampala to have the court session here in Gulu. So I thought--what to do? on the one hand, history in the making, on the other, my self-imposed deadline that I really ought to keep (especially since I'm going to Karamoja for some non-thesis-related consulting work next week). Maybe I'll stay up late tonight. History won.

I thought about the event in April of this year when the International Crimes Division had a public outreach session. Many people were concerned about the trial. They were concerned about the independence of the High Court, and the ambiguity behind why he hadn't been granted amnesty like many other former LRA who are back now. He had applied for it, but instead there was a trial. It had created a lot of confusion. Some people were saying that he couldn't have amnesty because he had been captured by the UPDF and only those who surrendered can have amnesty. In reality, the amnesty law has no such limitation. Others were asking why he wasn't being considered a victim since he had been abducted when he was 13 years old (how old he was exactly when he was abducted is reported differently, but he was likely still a "child"). Instead he had been charged with 12 counts and 53 alternative charges amounting to crimes against humanity under the Geneva Convention Act and other Ugandan penal law.

Because I ought to get back to that chapter, you get my un-edited notes as I jotted them down in court. Perhaps after stewing in the events a little longer I'll share more analysis. But for now, this was how the morning went:

Some of Kwoyelo's relatives came in after we'd been sitting on these hard benches for about an hour after the session was scheduled to start. His sister is blind and seems to have difficulty walking. People murmured when she entered. I wonder how she feels, knowing that all eyes are on her, hearing the hushed and accusatory whispers but not seeing the people who utter them. The courtroom is full. I'm squeezed on a bench with staff of a Transitional Justice NGO, police and other people from the community. The door of the defendant's chamber finally opened. Kwoyelo entered wearing a green button-down shirt, his hair combed back. He looked around the room. He's sitting between prison gaurds in the aisle in front of me and four people over to the right. Less than 2 meters away. He keeps turning around and searching the crowd. He met my eyes but not for long. I think he's scanning thre room for familiar faces. Is he hoping for the presence of friends? previous comrades in arms? Sympathetic expressions? Or maybe he is hoping not to see certain people? There is one man wearing a T-shirt which says "right beside you brother." I wonder if it was an intentional show of support or just happenstance of the man's wardrobe. Former LRA Brigadier Banya is here. I saw him outside though I haven't spotted him in the courtroom yet. Former LRA Ray Apire is in the back corner. Kwoyelo's sister is sitting behind me. Maybe that's why Kwoyelo keeps looking past my shoulder. He does not have an unnerving gaze. He doesn't seem nervous. Alert. He seems alert--more than other war criminals whose trials I have attended who looked simultaneously proud and bored--sometimes downright sleepy. Not Kwoyelo. I'm reading Hannah Arendt again right now. Not that he's an Eichmann, but sitting here does make me ponder her words on the banality of evil.

Twenty minutes later his mother came in. A common looking Acholi mother with a scarf on her head, wrinkled eyes and plastic green beads around her neck. I think his sister and his mother are the only barefoot people in the courtroom. He looked happy when he saw her although he didn't smile and they did not meet eyes. She is moving her lips inaudibly. I think she's praying. I'm told they are supportive of him and hope to welcome him home but they've endured a lot in the past 20 years including government intimidation. A clerk stood up and asked us if anyone had questions we'd like to ask the judges. They asked in English and didn't translate. No one responded. Everyone is rising. The judges enter and we sit down. The judge said they would provide clarification on some of the dates and events in the trial and then proceed with the matter before the court. He continued, they had referred the case to the Constitutional Court on July 5th when the judges granted the request of the defense on the grounds that the trial was unconstitutional because it was discriminatory of the Amnesty Commission and the Director of Public Prosecutions not to respond to Kwoyelo's amnesty request. The Constitutional Court had ruled on September 22nd that it was indeed discriminatory and therefore the trial was not constitutional and should stop. The judge is taking care to explain why several weeks elapsed before this session (he was on vacation) and assuring everyone that there was no intent to delay the matter.

And then without any further delay, he said, "We hereby cease the trial. And order the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Amnesty Commission to comply with the Amnesty Act." He pounded a gavel. We all stood. The judges left. Kwoyelo left. We all left.

(Justice and Reconciliation Project has a lot more information, analysis, pictures, commentary, etc. etc. on their website. Thanks for the photo guys! Oh, and you can see the T-shirt I mentioned in the background).

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