Prisoners of conscience: Uganda going down slippery judicial path

Muhammad Ssegirinya in court

Muhammad Ssegirinya in court

For months, two Ugandan members of parliament (MPs) remain stuck behind the grim prison walls.

Memories of the manner of their arrests, including their absurd re-arrest after a court had granted them temporary reprieve on the basis of the fundamental principle of our criminal justice system; “the presumption of innocence,” still linger.

The two MPs Muhammad Ssegirinya and Allan Ssewanyana, together with a few other locals, are jointly accused of counts of murder, attempted murder and terrorism after a series of machete killings in Masaka last year.

In March 2022, the MPs, once again, had their remand extended as state asked for more time to amend the charges against them. Previously, the state had sought an extension of time to allow them complete “investigations.” The common saying that “justice delayed is justice denied” cannot be over emphasised.

Article 28 of the 1995 Constitution states that an accused person is presumed innocent until he/she is proved or he/she pleads guilty. It also provides that an accused is entitled to a fair and speedy trial before an independent and impartial court or tribunal established by law. These two principles are part of the right to a fair hearing, which are declared to be inviolable by Article 44 of the Constitution. Sadly, they are under gradual but sustained attack.

In addition to the prolonged remand period in this matter, several allegations around state-orchestrated interference and intimidation have not gone unnoticed. Even their lawyers reported direct and indirect threats by those suspected to be within the state’s security infrastructure.

While for some this may appear farfetched, the chilling events that occurred after the courts had granted the MPs bail in September 2021 - where military outfits in drones and unidentified double-cabin trucks roughly re-arrested the MPs and dumped them in Kitalya prison - lend some credence to these allegations. 

It is, therefore, no surprise that at the last hearing of the matter, the duo’s lawyers opted to stay away from the proceedings presumably out of frustration with the manner in which external forces were influencing the judicial process.

Glaring gaps in due process aside, it is the seeming indifference that parliament has shown in this matter that raises a few eyebrows. These are representatives of two constituencies - Makindye West and Kawempe North - which in itself should warrant the interest of parliament.

One would imagine that with parliament’s newly elected leadership’s recent litany of promises regarding attention to members’ concerns’, irrespective of political affiliation, the matter of the actual trial of honourable colleagues would come high on their priority list.

First, in view of their status as MPs but also in the interest of the constituents from Kawempe North and Makindye West, whose expectation is (or was) that their now incarcerated elected leaders would represent their views and interests in the House.

Not even Ssegirinya’s mother’s protests at the precincts of parliament changed this nonchalant attitude, as no clear pronouncement on the intervention from the House came through; rather, handouts presumably meant to pacify a visibly distraught mother in the interim, was all they managed to come up with.

What I find even more interesting, though, is that this cuts a stark contrast when compared with previous instances where some MPs have been arrested on allegations of grand corruption and abuse of office. Here we saw parliament leadership invested in securing their release - organising hordes of constituents and elders to flock State House to seek presidential intervention, and the president even committing to paying legal fees.

A few days ago, Kampala’s Capital City Deputy Lord Mayor Doreen Nyanjura and Soroti MP Anna Adeke were hurriedly presented before court at LDC and remanded. Lawyers representing the duo indicate that while their clients were presented in court over a minor bailable offence, it was clear to them that there was a premeditated intention to have them remanded.

This follows a similar incident where retired opposition leader Rt Col Kizza Besigye was brought before courts, charged for inciting violence and slapped with an excessive and unconscionable cash bail; clearly aimed at crippling his ability to secure bail.

In a tweet, former presidential candidate and MUK vice chancellor Professor Venansius Baryamureeba seemed to suggest that the Shs 30 million cash bail was warranted as a deterrent. Not only is this notion misaligned with the ideology and purpose of bail but, more importantly, it sets pace for establishment of a dangerous pattern where inordinately long periods of remand will be used to punish dissent.

This can only paint a grim picture particularly for those in civil rights and liberties spaces - a day where even the promise of “your day in court” cannot be guaranteed and when it comes you will have already served your sentence; guilt or innocence notwithstanding.

Judicial officers must resist the slippery slope that normalises execution of sentences through remand. More importantly, we must all resist the use of our justice system as a pawn in the complicated matter of prisoners of conscience.

The author is a lawyer and advocacy strategist for non-profits.


0 #1 kabayekka 2022-06-23 19:53
As we continue to ask exactly why and how are the people of Uganda in the EAU when their universal human rights cannot be addressed by even such a big international organization.

Are all the people of this organization being duped to be used as items of international trade and commerce for the benefit of a few African individuals? Well then no one should be blamed for its collapse when the same happens again as it did during the 1980s. That is what is called when the soldiers go marching backwards!
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