Int’l Court sentences Ugandan to 25 years for war crimes

Int’l Court sentences Ugandan to 25 years for war crimes

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FILE – In this Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016 file photo, Dominic Ongwen, a senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose fugitive leader Kony is one of the world’s most-wanted war crimes suspects, is flanked by two security guards as … more >

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By MIKE CORDER

Associated Press

Thursday, May 6, 2021

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – The International Criminal Court sentenced a Ugandan former child soldier who turned into a brutal rebel commander to 25 years’ imprisonment Thursday, with judges saying that his own abduction as a schoolboy and history as a child soldier prevented him being sentenced to life.

Dominic Ongwen was convicted in February of a total of 61 war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape, forced marriage, forced pregnancy and using child soldiers as a commander in the shadowy Lord’s Resistance Army. His lawyers have said they will appeal the conviction.

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said that judges had to weigh Ongwen’s brutality and victims’ wishes for justice against his own tortured past when deciding on a sentence.

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“The chamber is confronted in the present case with a unique situation. It is confronted with a perpetrator who willfully brought tremendous suffering upon his victims,” Schmitt said.

“However, it is also confronted with a perpetrator who himself had previously endured extreme suffering himself at the hands of the group of which he later became a prominent member and leader.”

Ongwen, wearing a face mask and headphones, showed no emotion as he heard that the three-judge panel had given him a sentence five years longer than the 20 years prosecutors requested.

Ugandan authorities welcomed the sentence, in a case they had asked the court to investigate.

“As the government of Uganda, we are happy that the case we referred to the ICC had merit,” said spokesman Ofwono Opondo. “We are satisfied, and we hope it will serve as a signal to others who think they can commit a crime and run away. The law will always catch up with you.”

Ongwen’s defense lawyers have always cast him as a victim of the LRA’s brutality who was traumatized after being abducted as a 9-year-old and turned into a child soldier in the group’s violent insurgency.

But judges in February ruled that he committed the crimes “as a fully responsible adult, as a commander of the LRA in his mid- to late 20s.”

Schmitt underscored that on Thursday, saying Ongwen could have fled the LRA, was not always in a position of total subordination to its leader Joseph Kony and committed some of the crimes in private.

Ongwen abducted children and women and “distributed” them among his fighters, the judge said.

“He also kept women and girls for his own household, forcing the youngest to be his domestic servants, while those that were deemed old enough were forced to be his so-called wives, obliged to have sex with him, and bear his children,” Schmitt added.

Ongwen is the first commander of the LRA to face justice at the global court and his convictions for gender-based crimes are significant for prosecutors keen to punish such atrocities.

Founded by Kony, himself a fugitive from the ICC, the Lord’s Resistance Army began in Uganda as an anti-government rebellion. When the military forced the group out of Uganda in 2005, the rebels scattered across parts of central Africa.

Kony gained international notoriety in 2012 when the U.S.-based advocacy group Invisible Children made a video highlighting the LRA’s crimes that went viral. By that time, the group had already been weakened by defections. Uganda’s military estimated in 2013 that the group comprised no more than a few hundred fighters.

Reports over the years have claimed Kony was hiding in Sudan’s Darfur region or in a remote corner of Central African Republic, where LRA fighters continued to kill and abduct in occasional raids on villages, and where Ongwen was arrested in 2015.

Judges said Ongwen‘s role in a litany of brutal crimes would have merited a life sentence had it not been for his own childhood.

They said he was an intelligent child who could have grown up into a valuable member of society had he not been abducted on his way to school.

“All these possibilities, all his positive potential, all his hopes for a bright future came to a brutal halt on the day when he was abducted,” Schmitt said.

Uganda police surround Bobi Wine’s opposition party offices

Uganda police surround Bobi Wine’s opposition party offices

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Soldiers patrol outside opposition challenger Bobi Wine’s home in Magere, Kampala, Uganda, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, after President Yoweri Museveni was declared the winner of the presidential election. Uganda’s electoral commission says longtime President Yoweri Museveni has won a sixth … more >

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By RODNEY MUHUMUZA

Associated Press

Monday, January 18, 2021

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) – The opposition party of Ugandan presidential challenger Bobi Wine said on Monday that police have prevented top officials from going to their headquarters in the capital, Kampala, as they prepare to launch a legal challenge to free Wine from house arrest.

Police swooped in at dawn at the offices of Wine’s National Unity Platform, diverted traffic, and stopped people from entering, party spokesman Joel Ssenyonyi told The Associated Press.

Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, was the main challenger in presidential elections last week that electoral authorities say long-time leader Yoweri Museveni won with 58% of the vote.

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Wine, who took 34% of the vote, has rejected the official outcome as fraudulent and insists he will use all legal means to protest the allegedly “cooked-up” results. Wine can petition the East African nation’s Supreme Court, but justices have been reluctant to rule against Museveni in previous election suits.

Wine’s party has said it has video evidence of the military stuffing ballot boxes, casting ballots for people and chasing voters away from polling stations.

Opposition lawmaker Medard Sseggona, an attorney for Wine, said he feared police would seize any vital information related to the polls that was kept at the party’s headquarters.

Questions continue to swirl over the validity of the official election results, especially after the electoral commission on Monday acknowledged an account in the local press that results from over 1,000 polling stations had not been counted.

The commission, trying to meet a constitutional deadline, concluded that the vote difference between Museveni and his closest challenger Wine “would not be overturned by votes from the remaining 1,223 polling stations,” it said on Twitter.

The Daily Monitor newspaper reported that the vote-rich central district of Wakiso, widely seen as Wine’s stronghold, was the most affected.

Museveni has dismissed the claims of vote-rigging.

“I think this may turn out to be the most cheating-free election since 1962,” when Uganda won independence from Britain, said Museveni in a national address on Saturday.

But the election was marred by violence ahead of polling day as well as an internet shutdown that remained in force until Monday morning, when access was restored for most Ugandans. Social media sites remain restricted.

Wine has been effectively under house arrest since he cast his vote and now is allegedly unable even to receive visitors. Police thwarted opposition officials who were trying to meet with Wine at his home outside Kampala in order to discuss the way forward, Ssenyonyi said.

Lawmaker Francis Zaake has been hospitalized since Saturday after allegedly being assaulted by police who denied him access to Wine’s house, and Wine tweeted late on Monday that the U.S. ambassador wanted to see him “but was turned away from my gate by the soldiers who have held me and my wife captive for the past five days.”

The opposition party will seek a court order to end Wine’s apparent house arrest, Ssenyonyi said. “His home is not a detention facility,” he said.

Wine told reporters late Sunday that some of his followers “have been abducted and are missing. The military is conducting a massive campaign to arrest our agents. Many are on the run.”

Ugandan police are holding at least 223 suspects over election-related offenses, police said in a statement Monday.

Police spokesman Fred Enanga said security forces are “maintaining a security presence” around Wine’s home as a pre-emptive measure against possible rioting in the aftermath of the disputed polls. Wine is allowed to leave his home under “escort” in order to prevent his followers from “instigating riots and violent demonstrations,” he said.

Police similarly surrounded the home of opposition candidate Kizza Besigye after presidential elections in 2016, preventing him from going out after the official results of his loss to Museveni had been declared.

Wine has said his campaign against Museveni is nonviolent and that his followers are unarmed.

In a generational clash watched across the African continent that has a booming young population and a host of aging leaders, the 38-year-old singer-turned-lawmaker posed arguably the greatest challenge to Museveni, 76, since he came to power in 1986.

Calling himself the “ghetto president,” Wine had strong support in Uganda’s cities, where frustration with unemployment and corruption is high. Museveni‘s support is concentrated in rural areas, where many still praise him for bringing stability. A long-time U.S. security ally once praised as part of a new generation of African leaders, Museveni at the start of his presidency criticized African leaders who refused to step aside but has since overseen the removal of constitutional limits on the presidency.

Uganda’s elections are often marked by allegations of fraud and abuses by security forces.

The U.S. State Department urged “independent, credible, impartial, and thorough investigations” into reports of irregularities.

“We reiterate our intention to pursue action against those responsible for the undermining of democracy and human rights in Uganda,” it said.

East Biloxi loses iconic climate activist

East Biloxi loses iconic climate activist

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By ISABELLE TAFT and The Sun Herald

Associated Press

Saturday, October 3, 2020

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) – Hurricane Katrina destroyed Sharon Hanshaw’s home and the salon she had owned and operated for 21 years.

Standing on Bayview Avenue in East Biloxi not long after the storm, Hanshaw gestured towards one of the many empty lots.

“That’s where my salon was,” friend and colleague Reilly Morse, general counsel at the Mississippi Center for Justice, recalled her saying. “I was a beautician, and Katrina took it all away. What else can I do but this?”

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In the 15 years after Katrina, “this” turned out to be a second career of advocating tirelessly for the people of East Biloxi, many of whom felt ignored and forgotten by officials who seemed more interested in attracting casinos than rebuilding affordable housing. The organization she founded, Coastal Women for Change, harnessed the skills and resilience of local women and empowered them to speak up for their community.

Hanshaw brought the story of East Biloxi to the world. She spoke at climate summits in New York and Copenhagen, and met with women from Uganda and India whose lives had also been altered by climate change.

Hanshaw died on Sept. 4 at the age of 66, having led a life of service to East Biloxi that ultimately touched people all over the globe.

Whether at the United Nations or a city council meeting, her advocacy was always rooted in her commitment to her local community, said Carmelita Scott, one of her daughters.

“Everything that she did, it was ultimately about East Biloxi,” Scott said. “Even about climate change, she was talking about it in Copenhagen, but it started for her at home.”

A LIFETIME IN BILOXI

Sharon Kay Peyton was born in segregated East Biloxi in 1954. She always recalled her childhood fondly, Scott said. The housing project where she grew up sounded like “Miami South Beach” in her description, thanks to the proximity of so many friends and opportunities to spend time together.

Hurricane Camille, which hit the Coast in 1969, left vivid memories of neighbors yelling from their top floors: “Pray for us.”

Peyton graduated from the recently desegregated Biloxi High School in 1972. She married Charles F. Hanshaw in 1978 and opened her salon, Sharon’s Unlimited, in the 1980s.

Her father was a minister and restaurant owner, and as an adult Sharon Hanshaw kept up the family tradition of community involvement. She taught adult basic education classes in East Biloxi not far from her home and business. She also protested road projects that would have claimed homes in the neighborhood in the late 1990s.

Jearlean Osborne, now a community organizer for the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, recruited Hanshaw to teach adult literacy classes. Hanshaw’s personality made her a perfect fit.

“I wanted to have teachers that could talk to anyone regardless of their status,” Osborne said. “I wanted to make sure that they treated all people with respect, and that they would not look down on anyone.”

Women brought their griefs and their joys to her salon. The job turned out to be ideal preparation for the work she would pursue after Katrina.

“As a beautician, she knew loads of people who knew more people, and so she used that to mobilize and rally folks around fairness in the disaster recovery,” Morse said.

SHARON, UNDETERRED

As Katrina was approaching the Coast, Hanshaw and her daughters were in northern Mississippi. They returned home to a devastating scene.

“The front of the house was gone,” Scott recalled. “The porch is completely off. That front wall is off. I stepped up on the porch and, bam, I’m in my room.”

Years later, former Irish President Mary Robinson included in her book “Climate Justice” the story of Hanshaw’s efforts to restore a mahogany table that had belonged to her mother and was now warped by flood waters.

“Her daughters urged her to throw it away, but Sharon, undeterred, stuck it back together again with superglue,” Robinson wrote. “The glue hardened in ugly, lumpy streaks, exacerbating the table’s sorry state.”

Amid the wreckage of their old lives, a group of East Biloxi women began to meet in a funeral home, one of the only buildings still standing, to talk about what they needed and how they could get help. Oxfam America, contributing to the rebuilding work in East Biloxi, provided some financial support and training.

“When we were trying to get together with the people in the community to see what we were going to do, all we saw was women doing things,” Hanshaw would reflect years later.

To her surprise, Hanshaw was eventually elected their leader. They called the group Coastal Women for Change, a name that she said was intended to be inclusive not only of all women on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but also those living in different parts of the world facing the same challenges of climate change.

Hanshaw set up an office at the NAACP Biloxi branch. Members of Coastal Women for Change became fixtures at local government meetings. They advocated for affordable housing, assembled hurricane-readiness kits for elderly citizens, and provided home-repair grants for low-income families.

There was a lot to learn at first, especially when it came to the technical aspects of running a nonprofit. Scott said “it was nothing” for her to spend half an hour on the phone with her mother, explaining how to attach a file to an email; Hanshaw had never really used computers before.

But the core of the work – talking to people about their needs and developing plans to help them – came easily.

“Sharon had a personality that people could get along with,” said NAACP Biloxi branch president James Crowell. “She joked and laughed a lot, and she spoke her mind, whatever she had to say, she wasn’t going to bite her tongue.”

‘POOR IS POOR IN ANY LANGUAGE’

While she represented East Biloxi in recovery debates on the Coast, she also spoke for poor Americans at global forums on climate change. Through Oxfam, she toured five states and spoke in Washington, D.C., several times.

She attended conferences on climate change in New York, Copenhagen, and Rio de Janeiro, and spoke about human rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

She met women like Constance Okollet, a farmer in eastern Uganda and advocate for climate adaptation.

With Okollet, two women from Pacific Islands, and New Yorker Tracy Mann, Hanshaw co-founded a group called Climate Wise Women. They traveled the United States and Ireland, explaining the dangers climate change posed to frontline communities in low-income countries around the world. Hanshaw argued that East Biloxi, where most residents were low-income people of color, faced the same challenges as people in other parts of the world.

“They were connected, and by failing to connect them, we were missing a number of opportunities for political leverage, opportunities for understanding and knowledge sharing,” Mann said.

Through her travels, Hanshaw saw that poverty looked much the same worldwide, and learned that people in other countries were shocked to hear that many Americans were poor, too.

“Poor is poor in any language,” Hanshaw wrote in 2010. “And whether in Biloxi or in Darfur Africa, it’s the poorest who get hit by climate change hardest. My sisters from all over the world know this firsthand.”

‘PUTTING OTHERS IN THE ROOM’

Shortly after Katrina, Hanshaw met activist and attorney Jaribu Hill, who was representing shipyard workers at Northrop Grumman. The two became friends and “sisters in the struggle,” Hill said.

Over the years, they occasionally attended the same “high-brow meetings,” where big donors wanted to hear nonprofit leaders offer a polite description of the situation on the ground. Hanshaw, Hill said, always remembered that “you’re only there to lift up those who are not there.”

“She always spoke from the vantage point of putting others in the room who were not present,” Hill said.

By 2015, funding for CWC had slowed down as Katrina receded into the past and the world’s attention shifted away from the Gulf Coast. That year, Hanshaw suffered a stroke that left her non-verbal. She kept in touch with friends and fellow activists like Hill by sending text messages, sometimes with a thumbs up emoji, “to let you know that she was still supporting you,” Hill said.

In the years before her stroke, Hanshaw dedicated much of her time outside of work to caring for her young grandsons. That, too, became an act of building a better future for her family and her community.

“When she kept the boys, they’d be babbling, and she’d say, ‘You’re gonna vote when you get old enough, right?’” Scott recalled. “She didn’t do baby talk, but if she was to do it, she was talking about that movement.”

Home learning, reopening schools especially hard in Africa during pandemic

Home learning, reopening schools especially hard in Africa during pandemic

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In this April 22, 2020, file photo, children walk past an informational mural depicting the coronavirus and warning people to sanitize to prevent its spread, painted by graffiti artists from the Mathare Roots youth group, in the Mathare informal settlement, … more >

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By Rodney Muhumuza

Associated Press

Monday, July 20, 2020

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Lessons via radio or TV. Math problems in newspapers. Classes on Zoom or WhatsApp.

The options for African students to keep studying while schools remain closed because of the coronavirus pandemic seem varied, but the reality for many is that they will fall behind and possibly drop out of school forever — worsening inequality on an already unequal continent.

“I think education now is more of an emergency than the health issue,” said Dr. Mary Goretti Nakabugo, a literacy expert who runs a Uganda-based education nonprofit called Uwezo, noting that there have been no reported virus deaths and just over 1,000 cases in this East African country, though, as elsewhere, limited testing means those figures are likely undercounts. Children “are completely helpless at the moment.”

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Although the pandemic has disrupted education across the globe, the schooling crisis is more acute in Africa, where up to 80% of students don’t have access to the internet and even electricity can be unreliable, making distance learning difficult, if not impossible. Schools also often provide a refuge to vulnerable children, offering services that their families cannot afford.

Sub-Saharan Africa already has the highest rates of children out of school anywhere in the world, with nearly one-fifth of children between the ages of 6 and 11 and over one-third of youth between 12 and 14 not attending, according to the U.N. culture and education agency.

But getting students back to school also comes with special challenges in Africa, where children in some countries may cram into tiny classrooms by the dozens.

The charity Save the Children called the pandemic the “biggest global education emergency of our time” in a report published this week. It identified 12 countries in which children “are at extremely high risk of dropping out forever.” Nine of them are in sub-Saharan Africa.

With the help of outside groups, some African governments have announced measures to support learning from home. But many have been hindered by a lack of reliable electricity and poor internet connectivity. Even newspapers into which learning materials are inserted are not affordable for many in the region. In Uganda, for instance, annual per capita income was less than $800 in 2019, according to World Bank data.

Uganda’s government has pledged to distribute 10 million radios and over 130,000 solar-powered TV sets, but authorities have failed to honor past promises, including giving a free mask to everyone.

In neighboring Kenya, primary and secondary schools will remain closed through 2020, although colleges and other institutions of higher learning can reopen in September. That means Kenyan pupils will repeat an academic year, a phenomenon commonly described as a “dead year.”

But the effects will not be limited to academic disruption.

“The critical consequences may be related to health, water and nutrition” because schools are often oases of stability, according to a report by the Norway-based Chr. Michelsen Institute.

The development research institute noted that school closures may deny students access to meals and health programs, and sometimes clean water and sanitation.

Schools also provide havens for children from work and exploitation. Girls may especially suffer, according to the literacy expert Nakabugo, who cited anecdotal reports of a growing number of teenage pregnancies — as the Norway-based institute’s report noted happened during West Africa’s Ebola epidemic.

The prolonged shutdown could also mean many schools close for good and many teachers quit, exacerbating what is already the world’s worst teacher shortage.

Media reports in Uganda cite school owners who are looking to sell their properties or have turned dorms into rental units to keep up with loan payments. The local association of Ugandan teachers is urging authorities to employ furloughed teachers as village tutors.

“The teachers are so discouraged at the moment. They feel left out,” said Stella Maris Basemera, a mathematics teacher who heads a Uganda-based group of tutors called Creative Learning Africa. “So some of them are going to run away from the profession.”

In the West African nation of Senegal, education officials tried to keep children learning by broadcasting some classes on television after schools closed in March, a move aimed at reaching students without home internet access. But electricity is often lacking in villages.

“The potential of digital technology is enormous,” said Djibril Tall, a teacher in Senegal’s Louga region. But “in many places people are forced to travel long distances just to have enough to charge their phones.”

Some students in Senegal returned to classrooms in June, but, for many in Africa, returning to school may be tricky.

In Zimbabwe, where in many schools up to 70 students may be crammed into a small room, the government is postponing a phased reopening that had been scheduled to begin this month. Teachers unions had warned that such a plan is dangerous in schools lacking face masks, hand sanitizer, and even running water.

Even in South Africa, the continent’s most prosperous economy, the government has faced criticism from teachers unions for its decision to reopen schools despite a growing number of cases.

Since schools there reopened in June, at least 650 students and teachers have tested positive in the province of Gauteng, the country’s economic hub, forcing 71 schools to close again.

Many private schools across Africa are offering online tutoring. But in poor and rural areas, children are more likely to spend their days playing games or housekeeping.

“It is the poorest schools that will continue to suffer and remain closed, while affluent schools reopen, only deepening inequality in both access to and quality of education,” said Dipolelo Moime, spokesman for One SA Movement, a group of South African activists.

While some parents are paying hundreds of dollars a month for their children to attend online classes, others pay much less to teachers who conduct lessons in backyards. Many others cannot afford any support.

“I can’t even afford to buy bread. Where will I get the money for these private lessons?” said Maud Chirwa, a mother in the Kuwadzana suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. “They are better off at school where there are some controls.”

___

Babacar Dione in Dakar, Senegal, Farai Mutsaka in Harare, Zimbabwe, and Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed.