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Police engaged in political contest

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

Inspector General of Police and the Director of Public Prosecution have charged demonstrators in the renewed Walk-to-Work campaign with treason – attempting to overthrow the government of Uganda. Livingstone Sewanyana executive director of the local NGO Foundation for Human Rights Initiative told The Independent’s Mubatsi Asinja Habati that in the current political contest between the state and people’s rights, the government must open the door for dialogue:

Police and other security agencies have made it a practice to crack down hard on protesters as if they were violent criminals, disregarding the Constitution’s protection of peaceful demonstration. What explains this?

Traditionally, police uses preventive arrests to avert a situation they think might degenerate into a crisis. But at the back of their minds all over the world right now are Arab revolutions. They fear that if people are allowed to congregate they can attract larger crowds which become more difficult to control. The result could be what we have seen in North Africa and the Middle East. I think police is mindful that people have rights. But the state tends to operate unilaterally, ignoring or suppressing the wishes of its people, and making decisions without bringing alternative views to the table. The fallacy of the state is seeing the opposition as more enemy than countrymen who can provide alternative solutions. They forget that the state is not just government, it is people and everyone should be part of decision-making.

But protesters insist it is their right to demonstrate …

The state needs to think of a new approach to dealing with the problems raised by protesters because they are not going to stop. The opposition has an obligation to provide alternative views to government. The state is obligated to reach out to them and establish a dialogue. That is what is lacking.

What should the police do then?

Of course the best approach would be dialogue, but unfortunately, police all over the world think their role is just to maintain law and order – by any means. But also, we should not forget that the opposition also wants power and would seize any opportunity to mobilize the population to their side. If they think protesting on the streets will attract sympathy from the public, they will continue to use it. So it is up to the government to be more visionary and reach out to the opposition, recognize their grievances and open the door to dialogue.

Was it appropriate for police to air alleged evidence against suspects it intends to charge even before they were arrested?

I think it is very unconventional, and uncalled for, for police to publicly say I am charging so and so with this and here is the evidence.

What do you think was the reason behind IGP Kale Kaihura airing voice recordings of people he said he was going to charge with treason?

This is a political contest – each party is trying to win public opinion and sympathy. The IGP was thinking that by coming out with these recordings he would make the public think that these people were not well-intentioned and were trying to create chaos.

So what happens to such evidence before court?

We can’t determine what happens in court. It is up to the state to adduce evidence necessary to prove their claim. If they don’t then the court will acquit the accused, and they can also defend themselves alleging malicious prosecution. One must weigh the odds if charging them with treason, unless you are seeking to prosecute them politically.

What do you make of Uganda’s human rights record in regard to treatment of walk to work demonstrators by police and other security agencies?

This was well discussed by the UN Human Rights Council on October 11. The review expressed regret about Uganda Police’s use of excessive force, denying protesters rights during the April Walk-to-Work protests, and urged the government to restrain its police when dealing with demonstrators.

What do the treason charges against protesters mean for political expression and associated rights in this country?

Worldwide rights have never been given on a silver platter. People must continue to fight, as long as they are not in breach of the law. It is now upon the DPP and police to adduce evidence that sustains the treason charges in court. It is the prerogative of the state to charge a person suspected to have committed an offence but it has the burden to prove that charge. Otherwise it would amount to malicious prosecution. But you must remember that the DPP also has a Nolle prosequi (Latin meaning “we shall no longer prosecute,”). The DPP can tell court that he/she has lost interest in a case but that does not mean the he cannot reintroduce the charges. So even when you have been acquitted, he reserves this power, and that is why many people fear to return to court to sue for malicious prosecution after acquittal.

Can’t the DPP abuse this power?

Of course it can and is abused. But that is what we have under common law.

If government equates peaceful demonstration to attempt to overthrow government, what how will Ugandans express dissatisfaction?

Continue to claim their rights. Ugandans have to assert themselves because their rights are inherent. Conversely, the state will always want to maximize power. It is a contest you will not win today or tomorrow because it has been there since humanity.

Can words amount to treason?

No. If they did, that would be a new innovation. Treason is committed by overt acts that have to be proved. But the state is free to charge you with anything. It is the duty of the DPP to adduce the evidence and for court to decide.

Is police justified in putting the FDC’s Dr Kizza Besigye under preventive arrest?

House arrest is not new in this country. The late president Godfrey Binaisa was put under house arrest. These are strategies a state uses to control discontent, but it can lead to abuse of one’s rights because under Article 29 of our Constitution everyone has freedom of movement within the borders of Uganda. You can go to court and argue that ‘You subjected me to preventive arrest and violated my rights’.  Then court will decide. As of now, it is an administrative decision on the part of the state, to curtail Besigye’s movements.

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