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(New York) - The Ugandan minister of justice should immediately inform 17 individuals who have languished in prison for years of their legal status, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the minister of justice. The individuals have long awaited "minister's orders" from the minister of justice to determine whether they should be imprisoned, released, or placed in the appropriate custodial care.

Of the 17 individuals, 12 were sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18, and five were deemed by the courts to be not guilty by reason of insanity. They remain in Luzira prison without a final disposition of their case. Under Ugandan law, the minister of justice must issue orders regarding the sentencing or discharge of such cases.

"Locking people up and throwing away the key is no way to treat anyone, much less a child or someone who is mentally ill," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Ugandan constitution says that all prisoners have the right to be informed of their sentences in a timely fashion, not years later."

One detainee was convicted of robbery 12 years ago at the age of 16, and another was convicted of murder 11 years ago at the age of 16. Neither has been sentenced, and both were told by the High Court in 2001 to await orders from the Ministry of Justice.

The long-term detention without sentencing of children violates Uganda's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Uganda is a party. Under the convention, the imprisonment of children - defined as those under 18 at the time of the offense - should be a last resort and for the minimum period possible. The convention also strongly advocates the rehabilitation of those who have committed crimes as children.

Five mentally ill individuals who were found not guilty by reason of insanity by the High Court also remain in prison, awaiting action by the Ministry of Justice. In these cases, the minister of justice either must determine a suitable place of safe custody or discharge the individual.

One of the five has been detained for nine years awaiting such an order. Under international law, including the UN Principles on the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness, such individuals are legally entitled to an impartial and expeditious resolution of their cases and appropriate psychological assistance.

"The Justice Ministry is legally required to take action in cases of child offenders and the mentally ill," said Gagnon. "Dumping them in prison for years without resolution of their cases is a cruel miscarriage of justice."

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