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Justice delayed

By Haggai Matsiko

4,000 Kaweeri land grab victims wait for justice as Judge, lawyers’ flex legal muscles

On May 20, Siliveste Busululwa, 62, saw this reporter with a camera strapped around his neck seated at David Ssekandi’s home in Kitemba village in Mubende district. Suddenly, he stopped walking.

He then turned around and came to the compound where the reporter was, his eyes fixated on the camera. “By the way,” he asked Sekandi, trying to conceal his real mission, “Where did you say we are supposed to take the passport photos from?”

Busululwa’s real mission as he later revealed, though indirectly, was to find out whether this man with a camera could take a passport photo of him.  Indeed in the whole trading centre, there were many eyes on the camera and the talk about passport photos is loud enough to be heard in every corner.

But it’s not the passport photos per se that are on the poor people’s mind; it is what they think the passport photos will lead to. Busululwa told The Independent that the passport photos were needed to open a bank account where he expects money he has waited for a long time – almost ten years – to be deposited.

Since, March 28 when Judge Anup Singh Choudry ruled that Uganda Investment Authority (UIA), Kaweeri Coffee Company Ltd and Messrs James Nangwala and Alex Rezida jointly pay Shs 37 billion as compensation to the 401 families with a total of 4,000 people that the investors forcefully evicted from their land in 2001, most of them with no knowledge about opening bank accounts, look at the passport photos they were told to take, as the final hurdle to their much awaited compensation.

“Everybody is now taking passport photos to open bank accounts,” Busululwa said, with a glint in his eyes, “they said that our compensation money will be put on the accounts. I have been looking for a camera man to take mine too.” But unknown to the illiterate villagers, far away in Kampala there is an acrimonious battle between the judge who directed that they be compensated and the Uganda Law Society, which could potentially prolong their suffering even further.

Singh awarded the villagers Shs 37 billion for the damages caused during the August 2001 eviction from their villages of Luwunga, Kitagweta, Kitemba and Kyamutuma in Mubende District.

The villagers recall the eviction as if it was yesterday.

At a June.18 meeting, addressed by the Deputy RDC of Mubende District and two representatives of the coffee company, the residents had been asked to vacate their properties by Aug.31. They would be relocated to land acquired by their landlord at Kambuye Block 168.

But in a turn of events, the relocation date changed at an Aug.15 meeting.  They were given just a day to vacate the land. That was the last warning. The following morning, soldiers attacked the residents, beat and destroyed their properties and crops. A bulldozer Reg No UG0370W descended on their houses, demolishing them to smithereens.

Hardly a week later, President Yoweri Museveni visited the area and launched the coffee project. Today, the land in question is covered with a sea of coffee trees and a coffee processing plant with tractors moving up and down around it. The evictees did not go far.

Patched at the corner of the mammoth plantation, they watch on though they can’t dare do anything to get back on the land as police are on guard with several police road blocks along the road through the estate.

“Victims suffered and starved and moved to the forest and make shift shelters,” the evidence tabled before Judge Singh reads, “A number of children and old people died because of cold.”  It adds that no professional surveyor was sent as promised and no compensation, or relocation was arranged or no resettlement took place at Kambuye as promised.

Neither was the 6 months Notice given as prescribed by law.  Singh ruled that Messrs Nangwala and Rezida deliberately withheld information in breach of their fiduciary duty and this deliberate omission was a dishonest conduct in a land transaction he described as a scam.

He added that he was satisfied that the land sale agreement drawn by the lawyers and the Assistant director of UIA was a “bogus document intended to defraud the government and the tenants.”  “I hold Nangwala and Rezida as agents for the 1st Defendant liable in negligence in contract and negligence in tort and order them to pay the following damages as the Government cannot be an open cheque book for the negligence, fraud, dishonesty and theft of their lawyers,” Singh ruled.

He added that though the German investors had a duty to ensure that our indigenous people were not exploited, instead they were “quiet spectators” and watched the drama as cruel and violent and degrading eviction took place through partly their own workers. “They lost all sense of humanity,” he noted.

Pay Shs 37 billion

As such, he ordered that the investors, UIA and their lawyers pay a bill of Shs 37 bn to the victims within 30 days. The families had waited for about 12 years for such a ruling. No one even knows Singh here apart from those that represented them in court. But everyone from 40 year old Sekandi to 92 year old Matayo Kiyitawaguru and Busululwa is already planning for the Shs 37 billion that came with that ruling.

And the only thing standing between them and that money, they have been told, is a passport photo to open up a bank account where each person’s share will be deposited.  Busululwa, used to own five acres but ever since he was evicted, he almost lost everything. He is left with four children, four others and his wife passed away. “I am very weak,” he said, “we have suffered so much, we have to buy all the food we eat. The way we suffered, when they compensate us, we will find a bigger place and stay there.”

Busululwa, Sekandi and Kiyitawaguru have especially one man to thank for their victory—Peter Kayiira. Almost single handedly, Kayiira, they say, has made sure they get their compensation. “Ohh! That man has fought for us,” Kiyitawaguru says nodding his head reflecting about the lengthy legal battle.  “He will decide what he wants,” Busululwa adds, “ for us, we are ready to give him anything, whether it’s votes to go to parliament, anything, he decides.”

But as they celebrate and spend their meager earnings taking passport photos and opening up bank accounts, a storm and not in their favour, is brewing in Kampala. The lawyers of the investors, Nangwala and Rezida Advocates secured an interim order for an injunction against the judgment, which they also decided to appeal. If they win the appeal, it means that Judge Choudry’s ruling is quashed and the victims won’t be paid.

Irked that the registrar granted the interim order, Judge Choudry wrote to the Chief Justice Benjamin Odooki asking that the registrar be punished for issuing the interim order. “…I have noted your concern and action you propose to take,” Odooki replied to Choudry in an April. 23 letter.

Choudry had also directed the chief registrar to send a copy of this judgment to the IGG for appropriate enquiries of corruption in this case and to the Law Council for disciplinary action against the lawyers.

He also notified the Director of Public Prosecution to consider criminal charges against the lawyers and also the legal Department State House Kampala. He ordered that if they wanted to appeal, they were to first deposit the Shs 37 bn with the court.

Then he made the order that riled the lawyers: “In the event James Nangwala and Alex Rezida are not able to discharge the debt, the plaintiffs may apply to the Law Society or Law Council to be paid from the Compensation Fund where a member of the public has suffered from the dishonesty of the lawyers.” This riled the Uganda Law Society, which has now drawn battle lines to deal with Choudry once and for all.

“By reason of having been found guilty of professional misconduct and having been struck off the Roll of Solicitors in the United Kingdom, Hon. Choudry is not suitable or qualified to hold the esteemed office of Judge of the High Court of Uganda,” Ruth Sebatindira, the new ULS president, said in a statement.

She added that the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) having found a prima facie case warranting the appointment of a tribunal to investigate the appointment and removal of Hon. Choudry as Judge of the High Court, the said Tribunal should be appointed without further delay as the continued conduct of Hon. Choudry poses a serious threat to the administration of justice in Uganda.

“The conduct of Hon. Choudry in HCCS 179 of 2002 [the Kaweeri case] is offensive to the judicial oath of administering justice without ill-will as the orders directed against Counsel in that suit and against the Uganda Law Society are clearly vindictive and not based on any known law or practice in Uganda,” Sebatindira added.

A top lawyer who has been following the case, faulted the Judge for making the lawyers liable, which he said is the role of the Law Council.

He added that by drawing in the ULS, which had nothing to do with the case, the judge appeared to want to want to use the trial to hit back at the lawyers and the Law Society.  Nangwala and Rwezida are representing the ULS in another case in the Constitutional Court case, in which they want the court to prevail upon President Museveni to appoint a tribunal to investigate Choudry.

Justice Choudry’s troubles with the ULC stem from allegations that he was involved in a legal aid immigration racket in London in the early 2000s when he was a solicitor and proprietor of Singh and Choudry, a law firm in Dalston, East London. The scandal ended in the closure of his law firm in 2001seven years before he was appointed a judge in May 2008.

According to the Constitution, the President, on receiving a report from the JSC, has the prerogative to appoint a tribunal comprising three persons who are or have been at the level of High Court judges.  In the event that a tribunal is appointed, the President then goes ahead to suspend the judge pending the completion of the investigations.

Several months later, it is not clear why the President is still reluctant to appoint a tribunal. The report to the President was made by the former Commission headed by Seith Manyindo, whom Choudry earlier accused of being biased against him.

There is now a new team headed by Justice James Ogoola and some reports say the Judiciary and the new JSC are not keen on seeing a precedent whereby the Law Society decides the fate of judicial officers. Choudry insisted that until he is suspended in accordance with the law, the lawyers had no grounds to decline to appear before him, adding that he is aware that there is another petition in the Constitutional Court filed by Pastor Bosco Odiro to nullify the Law Society’s petition as the Constitution gives immunity to the President from any proceedings under Article 98(4).

According to the Judiciary, until a judge is formally suspended, his rulings remain binding. A legal affairs analyst argued that even if the Tribunal were to be appointed, judicial officers often tend to protect each other, which means that there is no guarantee that it would recommend that Choudry be fired.

Also, the only requirement for appointment as a High Court judge is having practiced as an advocate for a period not less than ten years; no mention is made of one’s prior conduct as a hindrance to appointment as a judicial officer.

Justice Choudry, 63, is a Ugandan of Asian origin who studied Law and practiced as a solicitor in the UK before he was appointed to the High Court of Uganda in May 2008.

“In the past I also ruled in favour of clients who were represented by Nagwala and Resida,” Singh notes, “I suspect there is some other motive why Nangwala and Resida do not want to appear before a grey-bearded judge in this case,” the judge joked.

As it stands, the impasse in Kampala between the judge and the legal fraternity means that the thousands of people in Mubende who have no clue about what is going on, must wait longer for their compensation.  As the two elephants tussle it out, the poor people of the four villages in Kasanda are the proverbial grass that must suffer.

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