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Court martial says nope to NUP 28

But Justice Minister Mao vows to free the civilians

COVER STORY | DICTA ASIIMWE & AGATHER ATUHAIRE | This October is a do-or-die month for the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Nobert Mao. It is the month, he has said, that will see him fulfill his pledge to ensure that the Military Court Martial in Kampala ceases the trial of 32 supporters of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) party of Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi wine.

The minister has said what is going on with the trial of the NUP 32 shows the lawlessness of security forces. It is the army subverting and abusing judicial processes, he says.

Mao has based on that conviction to promise to end the suffering of the NUP supporters.

“Let us review this matter at the end of October,” says Mao, a lofty dreamer who heads the opposition Democratic Party but last year, on July 21, 2022, accepted a deal that earned him a job and pawned his party into a partnership with the ruling NRM party of President Museveni.

Mao who at the time of his appointment said he joined the NRM to work on peaceful transition from President Museveni’s 37-year long grip on power, also promised to work towards freeing political prisoners.

He says that when he was appointed Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, one of his first initiatives was to ask President Museveni for permission to establish a standing Cabinet committee on human rights.

Mao chairs the committee with nine members including the Minister of Internal Affairs, Attorney General and the Secretary General of the ruling National Resistance Movement. He also adds that he asked and was granted permission to meet with the National Security Council that he says is made up of top general’s in the UPDF and senior police officers.

Obalai Siraje Mudebo

Mao says that together with members of the two groups, he will soon get the UPDF to stop trying civilians in the court martial.

Mao says Uganda is a signatory to several international human rights conventions, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights that prohibit the trial of civilians in military courts.

“Military courts should not have circumstances where they have jurisdiction over civilians,” he says.

He also says that Uganda’s constitution, guarantees independence of the judiciary.

“It is impossible to achieve this independence, when the army, an arm of the executive is trying civilians,” he says.

According to him, the general court martial was intended to only try soldiers.

Kintu Abdallah and Kalanzi Sharif

“The only circumstance under which military courts could have jurisdiction over civilians is for instance, if a civilian acts in a manner which is harmful to security and in my view that should only be if someone cooperates with a foreign state,” he says.

Adding that with the NUP supporters, this has not been the case. He laments the army’s increasing tendency to try civilians at the slightest excuse.

“The trial of civilians in military courts in our country appears to be the rule rather the exception,” he says.

Mao hopes to cure all these ills, when he meets senior army officer in a Security Council meeting that, he says, the President has asked Vice President Jessica Alupo to convene.

The NUP 32 were arrested between April and May 2023 just before or after President Yoweri Museveni was sworn-in. Most are ordinary people who eked a living riding boda boda motorcycle taxis and doing petty in the city. A few are technicians. Among them is Olivia Lutaya whose plight has caught the attention of and been highlighted by activists on social media under the hashtag #freelutaya.

This September, she has been in detention for 28 months although she maintains her innocence. Her son was barely 5-years old when his mother was taken from him in May 2021. He is now a tortured 7 year-old.

Whenever they meet for a few minutes at the military court at Makindye in Kampala city, the boy whose name in Jeremiah, often asks her mother one sad question: “Mummy when are they releasing you?”

Olivia says the question makes her tear up immediately as her pain and helplessness sink in. Olivia is not a soldier but she, together with 31 other civilians, is being tried by military court martial for alleged illegal possession 13 pieces of explosive devices.

Initially state security agents accused and the others of attempting to disrupt the swearing in ceremony of Yoweri Museveni’s Fifth term as President. It’s not clear why that charge was dropped but Olivia says all the accusations are trumped up charges. She says her only crime is being a supporter of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) of Roberty Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. She says it is the reason she was abducted by soldiers from near her home in Namuwongo, a Kampala suburb.

Katabi Swaibu

The other big cause of pain for Olivia is when her son asked if she really wanted to kill people. She says that is a question for the security forces to answer. But to date, they have refused to answer it.

Olivia and her co-accused were first brought before the military court in June 2021. Since then, prisons authorities have been bringing them at least once every month.

Olivia is being held at the Luzira Women’s Prison near Kampala but she does not want her son to visit her there.

“Prison is no place for a child,” she says and prefers to snatch a few moments with him at the regular appearances at the Military Court Martial.

Delayed justice

The case against Olivia and her co-accused is mentioned at least once a month, but hearing has never taken off, in what those who interact with this case agree is a result of the delaying tactics employed by the accusers; the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF). As prosecutor and judge, the UPDF has proved to be willfully disorganised and incompetent; so that it can keep them in detention.

At their last appearance, on Sept.19, for example, the UPDF Prosecutor; Lt Col Raphael Mugisha told court the session could not be held. Reason: He needed time to get back his witness, a police officer who had been transferred, unexpectedly the night before.

Witnesses suddenly receiving new assignments and therefore failing to appear for court against NUP supporters is the reason that Lt Col Mugisha has relied on to postpone hearing on several occasions.

George Musiisi, the lawyer for the NUP supporters says other tactics include suddenly changing charges against the accused, to include a charge of treachery, when the army had earlier communicated readiness to prosecute the charge of unlawful possession of ammunition.

Gibusiwa Abdallah Hakim

Musiisi has objected to the treachery charge, as he feels it should be reserved for soldiers. He has also asked the general court martial to let him take the introduction of the treachery charge to the constitutional court but the court martial has rejected this request. It has also refused the accused bail applications for 28 of the accused. Only four were let out in April. The head of the court martial says the 28 prisoners have failed to provide substantial sureties. Their lawyer is unsatisfied.

“Imagine people put forward their parents, spouses and instead of examining and answering each surety on their merit, he came back with the one line,” says Musiisi.

He also asks; “Who can be more substantial than your spouse or parent?”

Musiisi filed a fresh bail application in April. But the court martial has not even set the hearing date – five months later.

“In the meantime, these prisoners continue to lose whole chunks of their lives,” he says.

Sekitoleko Yasin aka Machete

Musiisi says many of their families have been evicted from the houses they rented because no one could afford rent. One of them, Swaibu Katabi, has a mother he says suffers from TB that has worsened since his detention. Another, Joseph Muganza, is hypertensive and has collapsed several times. His mother and father died and he not there to bury them – but he has not be told.

Shifra Rukundo, a NUP mobiliser who often takes the prisoners food, says they fear the news could worsen his hypertension.

Disorienting the population

Lubega Makaaku, a former opponent of Mao in the fight for the Democratic Party Presidency, says Mao is mistaken if he thinks a deal that led to his appointment as the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs will allow him reform how security forces arbitrarily jail civilians.

“Changes that end the UPDF’s arrest of civilians cannot happen,” Makaaku told The Independent, “The NRM arresting some random opposition supporters and arbitrarily keeping them in jail, is how Uganda’s ruling party, which is a dictatorship has always functioned.”

“The philosophy of dictatorships the world over is the same and what is being applied to the NUP supporters is what I call `open your mouth and I crash you’.

“In Uganda today, they employ arbitrary and extra judicial arrests and this is what is happening to all of us now,” he says.

The point to this arbitrariness according to Makaaku is so that President Museveni and his NRM can ensure political participation is theirs exclusively.

The arrests he says do not follow any particular logic, as you can support the opposition and largely go on with your life, if you are not an opposition leader, while your neighbour, who did the same as you, rots in jail.

Kato Umar Emma

That feeling of leaving the decision of whether you are arrested or not to an arbitrary power is something that Rukundo, reechoes, as she reflects on how Olivia was arrested.

“I think when it is your day, it just is your,” says Rukundo, explaining how an earlier arrest in Kalangala, had taught these women to be cautious and not to deal with people they did not know.

Makaaku says the point to random arrests and in some cases releases, as was the case with the four NUP prisoners that got bail in April, is to disorient the population in general.

Security agents continually arrest President Museveni’s opponents, keeping them in jail for as long as possible and then releasing them through either the courts or amnesty. High profile cases include that of opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who was accused of treason alongside nine others including his brother Joseph Musaazi Kifeefe who died in prison. Others include Charles Wesley Mumbere, the cultural leader of the Rwenzururu and over 200 of his subjects.

Musiisi, the lawyer for the NUP prisoners says amnesty is the carrot that security forces have dangled over his clients. He says they often take one of the prisoners, promise amnesty in the hope that the prisoner, tortured by the different challenges of losing chunks of their lives over the last 28 months, capitulates, admit guilt and implicates the others. So far, Musiisi says, his clients have resisted the trap set by the security agencies.

Olivia says she has accepted her fate.

“It’s the only trick to survive this long ordeal where the choices are to either admitting to a crime you never committed or watching your life waste away, as you sit in a jail cell,” she says.

Mafabi David

“It is very easy to run mad if you fail to accept you fate,” she says. She then points towards the wire mesh, where she, alongside inmates at Luzira women’s prison spend the hours between 9am and 3pm every day.

“There are women down there that have indeed gone insane because they failed to accept their fate,” she says, “I don’t want to be one of those”.

 

 

3 comments

  1. Thanks editor for the brave article that rhymes with Independent Journalism!
    For Swahilis -raia hawafanyiwe kesi maktabu- you do not try citizens in a military court as simple as that. All points to the makings of a banana republic, with Kenya taking over as country to do business with in the region.
    Bwana Ruto is the darling of the West with investment flowing to the country and World Bank easing its dollar shortage with the emergency soft loans in contrast to Uganda where we have all priorities wrong – the gay bill -99.99% of the population is straight- heterosexual, and the mitumba ban yet 2nd hand clothes are popular in Europe for the low income families.
    For the majority of Ugandans on less than $ a day – the ban is meaningless to people going hungry. Where is our priorities for our legislators ? Is not corruption, poverty and human rights?

    We can learn a lot from our neighbours in dealing with human rights with the recent Kenyan demos-with the restrained state response to save as many lives as possible!

    The world is watching Uganda on how all these people tortured and rotting in inhumane prisons/ safe houses, whose only crime is being an opposition sympathiser!

  2. Ooh dear,

    May God help Uganda 🇺🇬 to become a country that is united in purpose and in true love for one another. And that the country may have a spirit of tolerance towards one another. That we may be able to abide with those who don’t agree with our way of doing things and leadership or rulership.

    This is what has made Uganda as a country far behind other founders of East African countries such as Kenya 🇰🇪 and Tanzania 🇹🇿. Those in power usually tend to think that they are above everything and everyone. Which is very wrong.

    Uganda 🇺🇬 would be very far by now economically etc if only the ruling party could just be there for the betterment of the country…but unfortunately it’s the opposite. May God help us…

  3. Saddened Ugandan

    What goes up, must come down.

    What goes around, comes around.

    “Be good to the people on your way up the ladder coz you will meet them on your way down.” – Lucky Dube

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