Uganda was yesterday still coming to terms with the Monday night murder of Joan Kagezi, the lead prosecutor in the ongoing trial of 13 terrorism suspects in the High court.
The exact circumstances of her death are little murky, but her demise underscores a fast deterioration of security in Kampala. To her many colleagues, Kagezi, an acting assistant director of public prosecutions, was simple, humble, and sometimes aloof, but a very professional prosecutor.
To the people she prosecuted, she was a “ruthless” and “heartless” prosecutor who never thought twice when asking a trial judge to hand down the death penalty. When Justice Alphonse Owiny-Dollo was adjourning the trial of the 13 July 11, 2010 twin bombing suspects last week, Kagezi assured him in her trademark confident style that, “We [prosecution] shall be ready next week on Tuesday [March 31].
But hours to her next appearance in court, Kagezi was gunned down in Kiwatule trading centre by two assailants who had been trailing her on a boda boda motorcycle at about 7pm.
Her murder ended what some lawyers described as one of the most brilliant and fearless top-notch criminal prosecuting careers.
She was hated and admired in equal measure even by defence lawyers. Some remember her as a master at laying legal strategies in prosecuting hardcore criminals. Principle State Attorney Jane Kajuga, who has worked with Kagezi for years, said on Tuesday that Kagezi’s key strength was studying cases in detail.
“She would study documents in detail and analyze all facts critically, then she would proceed to sanction the charge or if not convinced, she would send the case back to the police to do more investigations,” Kajuga said.
Caleb Alaka, the lead defense lawyer in the twin bombing trial that Kagezi was prosecuting, said the deceased was unmatched when it came to criminal law.
“We had several court battles with her. We exchanged barbs in court but there was no doubt that she knew what she was doing,” Alaka said.
But Kagezi’s rise to the pinnacle wasn’t without some stumbles. In 2006, in her first high- profile case as a state prosecutor, she failed to get a conviction from High court judge Rubby Opio Aweri, against Australia based cardiologist Aggrey Kiyingi – accused then of murdering his wife Robinah Kiyingi. Justice Aweri dismissed the case, citing a lack of evidence.
Kagezi was later to stamp her imprint in court when she successfully secured the conviction of former Arua municipality MP Hussein Akbar Godi, accused of killing his wife Rehema Caesar Nasur in 2008. Godi was sentenced to 25 years in prison by High court judge Lawrence Gidudu in February 2011. In 2010, Kagezi got another conviction of former Mukono district Police commander James Peter Aurien. He was sentenced to death by the High court for killing his wife Christine Opolot in 2008.
Kagezi also prosecuted and sent Thomas Nkulungira (Tonku) to jail for his role in the murder of his girlfriend Brenda Karamuzi whose decomposing body was found in a skeptic tank in 2010. In her soft but firm style, in 2011, Kagezi, then a principal state attorney, asked the trial judge Albert Rugadya Atwoki to sentence Tonku to death by hanging and the judge duly obliged.
After Tonku’s conviction and sentencing at the High court, Kagezi declined media requests for interviews. She simply walked straight to her official car, a Toyota double-cabin, in which she died on March 30, 2015. According to Julius Galisonga, another lawyer of the terror suspects, though she could lose her cool at times, Kagezi was generally “a calm” and “amiable” person.
“As a prosecutor, one would get an impression that Joan was a ruthless person. Joan was not that. In the way she talked out of court and in the way she submitted in court, she was respectful,” Galisonga said on Tuesday.
“I was really looking forward to working with her in the ongoing trial [terror suspects]. Words cannot express my grief. God bless her children.”
After the Tonku conviction, Kagezi was tapped to head the international crimes desk in the DPP’s office after the formation of the High court International crimes division in 2011. She handled international crimes such as terrorism, war crimes, crimes against humanity and trafficking of persons.
Her first assignment was the prosecution of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former rebel LRA commander, accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and 12 counts of kidnap with intent to murder. But Kwoyelo got amnesty. The state appealed the Constitutional court ruling. In the Supreme court in 2014, Kagezi vehemently argued that Kwoyelo did not deserve amnesty, considering the “heinous” crimes he allegedly committed. The Supreme court is yet to deliver judgment.
Following the July 2010 twin bombings that killed 76 people at Kyadondo Rugby club in Lugogo and the Ethiopian village restaurant in Kabalagala, Kampala, Kagezi, was tasked to prosecute the 13 suspects who are currently facing charges of terrorism, murder and attempted murder among others.
When the trial started in March, she protested against Justice Owiny-Dollo’s sanctioned sitting arrangement where the accused sat with other ordinary people in the courtroom. She argued that they should stand in the dock.
Kagezi said: “These are dangerous people who are facing serious crimes; they cannot mix with other people in court.”
But the judge overruled her, saying that standing in the dock would endanger the health of the accused. At the time of her death, Kagezi was also handling the case of Muslim clerics accused of terrorism, murder, crimes against humanity, attempted murder and treason. According to Mike Chibita, the director of public prosecutions, Kagezi’s death is a big blow to his office because she will be hard to replace.
“She is the only one we had when it came to international crimes. There are other state attorneys but we shall miss her expertise. She was well-known even in the International criminal court. That you cannot just replace immediately,” Chibita said.
Indeed, the case couldn’t proceed yesterday at the High court without Kagezi. Prosecution asked justice Owiny-Dollo to adjourn the terrorism trial indefinitely until they got Kagezi’s replacement. The former secretary of the Uganda Law society, Nicholas Opiyo, yesterday said that Kagezi’s death had robbed Uganda of a judge.
“I have information that she had sat interviews with the Judicial Service Commission and she expected to be appointed a High court judge soon. Her commitment to public service was second to none. I will miss her,” Opiyo said.
Another lawyer, David Mpanga, said: “Joan Kagezi was a prosecutor, not a judge. It is a tragedy that she should be killed for doing her job.”
Kagezi was born on July 14, 1967 in Luteete, Rakai district. She attended Nsuube primary school from 1973 to 1980.
From 1981 to 1984, she attended Mt St Mary’s College Namagunga, where she attained her ordinary level certificate (UCE), before sitting her A-levels there in 1987.
From 1987 to 1990, she attended Makerere University where she obtained Bachelor of Laws (LLB). In June 1992, she acquired a Diploma in Legal Practice from LDC.
On August 12, 1992, she was appointed as a land officer under the ministry of Lands. In May 1994, she was appointed as a state attorney under the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.
On February 11, 2002, she was promoted to the position of principal state attorney by the public service commission. On August 16, 2007, she was promoted to the position of senior principal state attorney.
In January 2015, she was assigned higher duties of Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions in the department of International Crimes. At the time of her death, she was pursuing a master’s in Business Administration (MBA) at ESAMI/MSM. She is survived by four children.