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(Kampala) - The Ugandan justice minister should immediately issue orders to release 11 prisoners with psychosocial or mental disabilities who have languished in prison for years without resolution of their cases, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the minister. All 11 have been found not guilty by reason of insanity but returned by the courts to prison, where they are placed on "minister's orders" status indefinitely until the minister decides on a course of action.

One detainee has been awaiting minister's orders for 16 years, and another for over 10. The remaining nine detainees have been waiting between one and six years. They were charged with crimes such as murder and defilement, found not guilty by reason of insanity, and returned to prison awaiting further orders.

"No one can be lawfully detained indefinitely, awaiting the decision of a member of the executive to determine their fate," said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Every detainee should have the right to have their case determined by an independent authority, not a politician whenever he gets around to it."

The fact that a government minister, as a member of the executive and not an independent tribunal, has the authority to control their detention makes the system arbitrary and unlawful under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said.

While Human Rights Watch is aware of these 11 cases, some in Luzira prison and others in Katojo prison in Fort Portal, others may be in similar circumstances. Under Ugandan criminal law, once a judge orders an individual to await the minister's order, the minister is supposed to determine whether the person should be released or placed in "appropriate custodial care."

Human Rights Watch called for the Ugandan government to amend the law and introduce a system of detention that complies with their human rights obligations. Prisoners with psychosocial disabilities are entitled under international human rights law to the highest attainable levels of health on the basis of free and informed consent. Ignoring them for years without appropriate health care or resolution of their cases is a miscarriage of justice, Human Rights Watch said.

In a positive step on January 3, 2011, a High Court judge ordered the unconditional release of 12 detainees who also had awaited minister's orders for years. These prisoners had been convicted of capital crimes as juveniles. Under Ugandan law, they also must await minister's orders for sentencing. Several had spent more time in prison than the maximum sentence for their alleged crimes. This long-awaited action was only possible because of a civil suit filed against the ministry on behalf of the 12 men.

The long-term detention of people with mental disabilities without resolution violates Uganda's obligations as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Having failed to designate a place of safe custody where they can get treatment and their rights can be independently safeguarded, the justice minister should order their release. Human Rights Watch said.

"The minister should not leave cases unattended for years as prisoners languish in a legal limbo," Burnett said. "The prisoners should be released and appropriate psychosocial support and community integration should be made available."

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