The boys, ages 14 and 16, were charged with treason in late 2002. One will next appear in court on March 6, 2003 in Moyo while the other is set to appear in Gulu on March 20. A Human Rights Watch representative met with the boys in Gulu on February 6.
"Treason is a very serious charge and should not be used against children who have been abducted by force and compelled to commit acts of violence," said Jo Becker, Children's Rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "The government should immediately drop the treason charges and ensure that these boys have access to rehabilitation assistance."
In a letter sent to the Minister of Justice on February 19, 2003, Human Rights Watch urged the government to immediately drop the treason charges, and release them to a rehabilitation center. The organization also called on the government to issue a public statement that children will not be subject to treason charges, and to ensure that such a statement is broadly disseminated throughout northern Uganda.
In northern Uganda, at least 20,000 children have been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army during the course of the 16-year conflict with the government, with approximately 5,000 taken since June 2002. Human Rights Watch noted that the charge of treason in these cases appears to be arbitrarily imposed, since thousands of children with similar experiences have not been similarly charged, and have been able to receive rehabilitation assistance and to return to their communities.
Uganda acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict on May 6, 2002. The protocol prohibits the forced recruitment of children or their use in hostilities by both governmental and non-governmental armed groups. Under the protocol, the government of Uganda is obliged to provide former child soldiers with assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.
"The imposition of treason charges against former abductees runs contrary to Uganda's international legal obligations," said Becker. "It may also discourage children currently in LRA captivity from seeking escape or surrendering to the Ugandan army."
According to Ugandan law, treason is a capital offense, although the death penalty may not be imposed upon those below the age of 18 at the time of the offense.