Dominic Ongwen hires new defense lawyer

Dominic Ongwen during the delivery of the sentence before the International Criminal Court on 6 May
2021 /COURTESY PHOTO

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Dominic Ongwen, one of the former top commanders of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army-LRA has appointed a new defense lawyer to represent him at The Hague-based International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. Ogwen picked Charles Achaleke Taku, a Cameroonian lawyer early this month in what seemed like a fallout with his former Ugandan lead defense lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo.

Ayena withdrew from further representing Ongwen at the global court. The Ugandan lawyer had been Ongwen’s lead defense lawyer since his appointment in February 2015. However, on June 1, 2022, Ayena requested the Appeals Chamber to grant him leave to withdraw as counsel for Ongwen in the proceedings before the Trial Chamber IX.

He was later relieved from his role in a decision communicated by the presiding Judge Luz del Carmen Ibáñez Carranza on June 7. The judge directed the registry to take all necessary steps to facilitate the prompt appointment of Charles Achaleke Taku as the new defense counsel for Ongwen.

“In light of the foregoing, the Appeals Chamber finds it appropriate to grant the request subject to the registry taking the necessary steps regarding the prompt appointment of Mr. Taku as the new defense Counsel for Mr. Ongwen in accordance with rules 20 to 22 of the Rules,” Justice Carranza’s decision reads in part.

Ayena’s reasons for withdrawal from the case weren’t publicly shared by the court. However, Ongwen’s new defense lawyer in a notification to the appeals chamber on June 1, highlighted Justice Carranza’s decision and stated that the communication between Ayena and Ongwen had completely “broken down”.

Speaking to Ugandan journalists at a briefing at The Hague in the Netherlands on Wednesday, Taku said that Ongwen told him that his communication with Ayena had broken down and wished not to continue having him as a defense counsel.

“When there is that breakdown in communication, it becomes a matter of serious concern, and that’s what Ongwen told us,” he said. Taku says Ayena has a right to challenge the decision if it’s indeed true that there was a communication gap between him and Ongwen.

The changes come at the time the Appeals Chamber is expected to deliver its judgment on the appeal in which Ongwen is challenging his sentence of 25 years in prison. In May 2021, ICC found Ongwen guilty of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Northern Uganda between 1 July 2002 and 31 December 2005.

His defense lawyers however later appealed the conviction. Between February 14-18, 2022, the Appeals Chamber of the ICC held hearings into the appeal lodged by Ongwen’s defense lawyers who raised 90 grounds consisting of alleged legal, factual and procedural errors relating to the conviction.

The Deputy prosecutor Mame Mandiaye Niang on Wednesday, said that the judgment for Ongwen’s appeal is expected in December this year. Niang noted that as prosecution, they are confident that the earlier conviction by the court won’t be overturned.

“We are pretty confident with the outcome of the case, but we have to wait for December,” he said.

About Taku

Taku who was formally appointed as Ongwen’s defense lawyer on June 6 this year has worked at the ICC for 23 years. He was first appointed as the lead defense counsel at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UNICTR) in October 1999 and later as lead defense counsel at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in July 2005.

Taku has also served and represented clients at the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva and the African Court on Human and People’s Rights in Arusha, Tanzania.

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