By Isaac K. Ssemakadde
The Law Society can do more for civil society and political activists
Uganda Law Society is mandated by an Act of Parliament to protect and assist members of the public in all matters pertaining to the rule of law and administration of justice in Uganda.
It is also heavily funded, thanks to compulsory subscriptions by practising advocates and grants from the government and multiple donor agencies investing in programmes like the Pro Bono Scheme.
Yet when we ask the many activists who visit our cash-strapped Centre for Legal Aid at Teachers’ House on Bombo Road in Kampala City why they do not first report to any of the Law Society’s satellite legal aid project offices in Luzira, Kamwokya, Jinja, Mbarara, Kabale, Kabarole, Masindi, Soroti, Gulu and Arua before consulting us, the common answer is that they do not perceive the Law Society to be serious about holding the State and NRM government accountable for human rights violations.
Some even go further to suggest that the leadership, management and staff of the Law Society have been bought off by the NRM government.
Indeed when one carefully reviews the three-page press statement issued by the Law Society President, Ruth Sebatindira, on October 12 in the wake of the unspeakable events of October 10 at Kyoja on the Masaka-Mbarara highway and Kanyaryeru in Kiruhura district of Western Uganda, it is plain to see why the Law Society is generally perceived as an elite group of jokers, fat cats, and government stooges.
First, the 786-word statement titled “Respect for Human Dignity and Protection from Inhuman Treatment” contains a tacit denial of the dreadful operating environment for activists in Uganda.
It deceptively portrays the events of October 10 – i.e. the attempted assassination of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leaders by police officers who intentionally threw spikes on the road at Kyoja to crash a convoy of their fast-moving cars and the premeditated stripping and torture of the FDC Secretary for Environment, Zaina Fatuma Naigaga, by police officers at Kanyaryeru – as isolated incidents or aberrations in a country with a respected and law abiding police force which respects human dignity and protects activists from inhuman treatment.
This is contrary to the annual reports of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC). Since the return of multiparty politics in 2005, UHRC has constantly reported the Uganda Police Force (UPF) as one of the main violators of human rights in Uganda especially concerning torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Secondly, in its recommendations to Government, UPF and “all persons in Uganda, including political actors”, the Law Society statement is almost comical and stops short of accusing activists for the worrisome culture of lawlessness and impunity that has engulfed the nation.
For instance, it paints the picture of a sane and sober NRM government that can urgently turn things around by respecting basic rights of activists and prosecuting those who violate them, especially during the election season. However given what we have seen since 2005, this is pure bunkum.
Furthermore, the police force is dishonestly portrayed as a credible institution capable of investigating and reforming itself. We are also told that the main reasons for the frightening levels of police brutality are lack of adequate training “in the area of human rights” (for which the solution lies in a rapid review of the curriculum at the police academy), and occasional lapses of “integrity, sound judgment and professionalism” among a few police officers (for which the solution lies in swift internal investigations and disciplinary action).
But these accounts are obviously misleading. All experts working on police reform agree that the main reason why police officers continue to be the top violators of human rights in Uganda is because they can get away with it, even where their shenanigans are recorded live on camera and instantly broadcast on social media.
The Law Society recommendations therefore ignore the overwhelming barriers to police accountability, embedded within the administrative and criminal systems, which make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offences.
To circumvent official unwillingness to deal seriously with police officers who commit abuses and other barriers to accountability, I expected the Law Society to use this opportunity to constitute a committee of inquiry into cases of police misconduct since 2005 and advocate for legislation establishing a specialised, independent police complaints authority like the new Kenya Independent Policing Oversight Authority in order to complement the makeshift system of police accountability at the UHRC and internal police disciplinary measures. But, unfortunately, this did not happen.
Thirdly, activists have long cried out for Law Society-backed Bail and Bond Policy Guidelines that would effectively terminate the bribe culture at police cells and magistrates’ courts, but the Law Society does not seem to care.
Finally, the Constitutional Court has agreed with us that police officers must be held personally accountable in civil proceedings for human rights violations. However, many Ugandans will not be able to utilise this accountability procedure if the Law Society continues to shy away, as it did on October 12, from giving the assurance of immediate, free and quality legal aid to vulnerable activists without discrimination on the ground of sex, sexual orientation, tribe, religion, social or economic standing, political opinion, disability or any other description.
Isaac Ssemakadde is the CEO Legal Brains Trust, a Kampala-based human rights watchdog, and chairperson of the Network for Public Interest Lawyers (NETPIL) – Civil & Political Rights Section. Email: email@example.com