The Ugandan government should stop intimidating the civilian courts, Human Rights Watch said today after armed security forces stormed the High Court in Kampala on March 1, 2007 to re-arrest five men bailed after 15 months of detention. The men are part of a group of individuals known as the “PRA suspects” who are charged with treason along with opposition party Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) president Dr. Kizza Besigye for their alleged membership in a rebel movement.
The Ugandan judiciary began a strike on March 5 in protest over the government’s actions at the High Court, while demonstrators in the streets of Kampala were met by heavy police deployment and the use of teargas.
Human Rights Watch said the March 1 events were a grim reminder of the November 2005 siege on the High Court by the army’s “Black Mamba” anti-terrorism unit that prevented the release on bail of these same men. At that time, Besigye was the leading opposition candidate running against President Yoweri Museveni in the February 2006 election.
“The security forces surrounded the High Court to intimidate the judges and thwart the decision to release these men on bail,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Museveni government’s attempt to intimidate the courts shows its profound lack of respect for the law.”
On the morning of March 1, 2007, the High Court ordered the release on bail of the co-defendants, who proceeded to the criminal registrar’s office on an upper floor of the High Court building. Approximately 30 prison officers and 25 armed men wearing police uniforms without nametags, but who are believed to be members of the army, then stormed the registrar’s office. The security forces attempted to seize the men, but were deterred from doing so in the presence of the men’s lawyers, relatives and supporters, which led to a standoff inside the registrar’s office.
During the standoff, scuffles broke out between members of the security forces and journalists in the corridors of the court building. A senior Kampala police official allegedly hit one of the defendants’ lawyers, Kiyemba Mutale, in the forehead, which required medical treatment. Security forces were heavily deployed in the streets around the court compound.
The stalemate continued for several hours until early evening, when it was agreed that the men’s relatives, prison officials, and security forces would leave the premises to allow for the men’s release. But at about 8.30 p.m., as the men and their lawyers attempted to leave the High Court building in the company of Deputy Chief Justice of Uganda Laeticia Kikonyogo and the chief judge of the High Court, the Principal Judge of Uganda Justice James Ogoola, security forces apprehended the five men, beat them and took them away in a police vehicle. The following day, March 2, the five men, along with five other PRA suspects, were presented before magistrate courts in Bushenyi in western Uganda and Arua in West Nile on murder charges stemming from 2002 and 2003.
The actions by the security forces were blatant interference into the independence of the judiciary. Article 128 of the Ugandan constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary and proscribes interference with the court and judicial officers in the exercise of their official functions. In the 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration, the Commonwealth countries, including Uganda, renewed their commitment to “the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.” Uganda is set to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 2007.
“President Museveni has now reportedly promised to investigate last Thursday’s events,” said Gagnon. “But this blatant disregard for the independence of the judiciary speaks more loudly of President Museveni’s faltering commitment to the Ugandan constitution he helped author.”
Human Rights Watch called on President Museveni to fulfill his pledge by ensuring a full and impartial investigation of the March 1, 2007 actions by the security forces. Human Rights Watch called on the Ugandan government to act in accordance with international policing standards in responding to public demonstrations arising out of those events. Human Rights Watch also called on the Ugandan government to ensure that proper procedures are followed in the new cases opened against the PRA suspects.
The storming of the High Court on March 1, 2007 appears to be the latest attempt by the government to avoid complying with court orders to release the men on bail. The men were part of a group of 22 persons charged with treason in the civilian courts along with Besigye, only months before the February 2006 presidential election in which Besigye was the leading opposition candidate.
Fourteen of the 22 defendants, known collectively as the People’s Redemption Army or PRA suspects after the supposed rebel movement to which they allegedly belong, were originally granted bail by the High Court on November 16, 2005. Their release was deterred then by the “Black Mambas’” siege of the court; the military subsequently brought terrorism and firearms charges against the PRA suspects before the General Court Martial.
In spite of two rulings by the Constitutional Court on January 31, 2006 and January 12, 2007 that a court-martial of the PRA suspects was illegal and ordering their release, the PRA suspects remained in detention on military orders. Some of the PRA suspects, however, have been released from detention following their applications under the national Amnesty Act, which provides individuals with amnesty from criminal prosecution in exchange for renouncing armed rebellion.
The March 1 hearing was convened in the High Court to hear a challenge by the government to the original November 2005 bail order. The remaining PRA suspects had been detained since January 31 on High Court orders pending the hearing on the application. When a further adjournment became necessary, the High Court ordered that the men be released pursuant to the original 2005 bail conditions. Although there were nine defendants present at the March 1 hearing, only five men were both covered by the 2005 bail order and able to satisfy the bail conditions.
The similar siege in November 2005 was condemned by the chief judge of the High Court, the Principal Judge of Uganda Justice James Ogoola, as “a despicable act” and a “rape of the judiciary.” To protest against these and other government actions, several international donors subsequently cut aid to the government of Uganda, including the United Kingdom, which in December 2005 diverted £15 million away from direct budget support and to the United Nations for its humanitarian operations in northern Uganda.