Thomas Kwoyelo, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in Uganda, has begun on January 19th his trial in Uganda for a number of different crimes. Murder, rape, kidnapping, and the recruitment of child soldiers are just a few of the over 70 charges laid against him.
Kwoyelo is the first commander of the LRA to be tried within Uganda, which comes after he had been held in pre-trial detention for 14 years.
The constant delays in Kwoyelo’s trial have been subject to severe criticism. Particularly with a controversial Ugandan law passed in 2000 granting thousands of former LRA members amnesty, many believe there has been little justice for the crimes perpetrated by the LRA.
Who is Thomas Kwoyelo
A former commander and colonel of the LRA, Thomas Kwoyelo was kidnapped by the LRA and forced into service at the age of 12. Kwoyelo stated he was abducted while walking to school in 1987. He was forced into becoming a child soldier, and continued to operate within their ranks until 2009, when he was captured by the Ugandan military after being injured in a shootout.
Kwoyelo denies the charges against him.
The LRA Insurgency
The Lord’s Resistance Army is a claimed Christian extremist group, which seeks the overthrow of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and the establishment of a theocratic state within Uganda, bound by the biblical Ten Commandments. The group was founded in 1987 by Joseph Kony.
The LRA led a significant insurgency in Northern Uganda, which has lead to the displacement of over 2 million people. During their insurgency, which is technically still ongoing, the LRA has killed over 100,000 civilians.
The group rose to international prominence due to their brutality, and their common tactic of recruiting children for both child soldiers and sex slavery. Over the nearly 40 years of their existence, they have abducted tens of thousands of children.
A series of multi-national operations against the LRA significantly reduced their capabilities and forced them out of Uganda. In modernity, they operate out of the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic.
In particular the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, rose to international prominence and was the subject of a global campaign pushing for his capture, awareness of his crimes, and his trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC). The campaign was called Kony2012, and was spawned from a documentary produced about him. The campaign pushed for Kony’s capture by the end of 2012, and made waves internationally, oftentimes being spoken about within schools.
Kony was not captured in 2012, and in fact, has yet to be captured. While he is still wanted by the ICC, the US and Uganda have halted their search for him due to the LRA’s operability and member size being so far reduced that they were determined to be no longer a threat. As of 2022, Kony was believed to be hiding out in the Darfur region of Sudan, as per the claim of an LRA member. It is unclear if the war in Sudan, of which Darfur is a particular hotspot for, has had any effect on his whereabouts.
Kwoyelo’s is the first case of an LRA commander being on trial within Uganda’s court system, however he is not the first commander to be put on trial.
In 2021 Dominic Ongwen, a senior LRA commander who was also originally a child soldier, was jailed for 25 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, and enslavement. Ongwen did not receive the maximum penalty for his crimes because of his origins as a child soldier, with the court stating he was groomed by the LRA who had killed his parents.
It is unclear if Kwoyelo will be granted the same, given that he is being tried by Uganda’s International Crimes Division of their High Court.