Achellam’s capture brings focus back to Amnesty Act
Last week saw a major boost to regional counter-LRA efforts when Ugandan forces took one of Joseph Kony’s top commanders, Caesar Achellam, into custody. While the Ugandan government has been keen to parade him in front of reporters as proof of their military successes, it has so far deferred on one crucial question: Will Achellam be prosecuted for crimes committed during his time with the LRA, or will he be granted amnesty?
At first glance it may seem simple. Under the terms of Uganda’s 2000 Amnesty Act, Achellam is clearly eligible to be granted amnesty as long as he applies for it once he returns to Uganda. A Ugandan government legal adviser confirmed this last week, saying “There’s absolutely nothing that prevents Achellam from being considered for amnesty. He’s eligible.” As we wrote last week, there’s good reason for him to be granted amnesty despite the crimes he’s accused of, particularly because it will weaken the LRA by encouraging commanders and fighters who remain in the bush to defect.
Granting Achellam amnesty won’t be that simple, however. The Amnesty Act is set to expire on May 24, just three days from now. If the Ugandan government doesn’t move to renew it, this would throw into jeopardy not only Achellam’s future, but also that of the remaining LRA fighters in the bush who want amnesty. This could severely undermine efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict by encouraging LRA members to defect, and would likely prolong the LRA’s reign of terror against civilians in central Africa.
Even if Uganda renews the Amnesty Act, they could still attempt to prosecute Achellam, as they did with his fellow LRA commander Thomas Kwoyelo, a former abductee who rose in the ranks and was captured in 2009. Kwoyelo applied for amnesty, but the Ugandan government denied his application and put him on trial for his alleged crimes. Even after several Ugandan courts upheld his right to amnesty and ordered his release, the Ugandan government has refused to release him.
The Ugandan government lawyers attempting to prosecute Kwoyelo argue that the Act is unconstitutional in the first place, that it runs counter to international law, and that he should be punished because of the severity of his crimes. Already the UN’s Radhika Coomaraswamy has used similar arguments to call for Achellam’s prosecution.
Conspicuously absent from the debates about Achellam’s future have been the perspectives of people who have been directly affected by LRA violence. More consultations are needed to understand the views of communities who have been affected by Achellam’s actions in Uganda, Congo, CAR, and South Sudan.
The debates over amnesty v. prosecution, or peace v. justice, are extremely contentious. Yet they need not be mutually exclusive–a possible compromise might be reached if Achellam agreed to participate in truth-telling mechanisms and traditional Acholi reconciliation ceremonies in lieu of formal sentencing. This might provide for Achellam to face some measure of justice for crimes while mitigating the negative effects on defection efforts.