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Lira Corruption Arrests Controversy

Police criticised over their handling of arrests of local representatives suspected of fraud.
By Patrick Okino
The former Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, legal advisor has criticised the police over the arrest of four Lira district councillors in connection with an alleged corruption case

Kampala lawyer Cryspus Ayena Odongo claims officers have mishandled the case and may not have followed proper procedures when they detained the suspects.

The four councillors were apprehended last week after they allegedly accepted bundles of cash valued at about 1,400 US dollars, in exchange for altering a report on the misappropriation of health department funds in the Lira region. They face charges of corruption, abuse of office and receiving bribe.

According to the police, the four men reportedly accepted the money from a district health officer, after telling him they would not implicate him in their fraud investigation if he paid them money.

The investigation concerned the suspected mismanagement of about 45,000 dollars released by the government for local health clinics, according to Patrick Okello, Lira health and education official.

A four-member team of councillors was named to probe the matter, Okello said, and “after visiting health units to find out how this fund was utilised, they identified losses”.

Following their arrest, the men were charged by Lira chief magistrate, Gabriel Nyipir, and jailed in the local prison.

The arrests come in the wake of detentions in August when more than 20 people were apprehended for alleged misuse and loss of money from the Northern Uganda Social Action, NUSAF, a World Bank project intended to help rebuild northern Uganda.

The detention of the four councilors, who had not been implicated in NUSAF saga, brings to six the number of local representatives involved in corruption-related cases linked to the government’s programme.

The arrests further plague already troubled efforts to reconstruct northern Uganda after 20 years of war with the LRA. The north has been relatively peaceful since July 2006 when talks began between the rebels and Uganda in Juba, South Sudan, allowing development projects to go ahead.

But a peace agreement with the rebels negotiated over the past two years remains unsigned. Late last month, LRA leader Joseph Kony again refused to put his pen to the deal, the third time this year that this has happened.

As discussions with the LRA continue, the former LRA legal advisor has apparently agreed to represent the four councillors suspected in the alleged bribe case.

Odongo was critical of the arrests and said that bribery cases involve two parties, the giver and the receiver of the bribe, and that both parties must be prosecuted.

“[The district health officer], who allegedly paid the bribe, should as well be interrogated and prosecuted, just like the alleged recipients, if justice was to prevail,” Odongo said.

He also said the court should drop the charges because police may not have obtained permission from the proper authorities to make the arrests. He did not elaborate.

Others suspect the arrests were a ploy to prevent the details of the report from becoming public.

Councillor Joy Ongom said the report was supposed to be debated in the near future, which would have made the results public. “The arrest is politically motivated,” Ongom claimed.

District commissioner Franco Ojur, meanwhile, said people should not jeopardise the police investigation.

“Knocking heads over a small issue under investigation is ridiculous,” Ojur said. “I am advising people to remain calm.”

Ojur was among those implicated in a NUSAF case earlier this year over the rebuilding of a road east of Lira. Ojur`s case file is still with the Directorate of Public Prosecution in Kampala.

Despite the complaints about the case, police indicated they have strong evidence against the defendants.

According to sources close to the investigation, after the councillors allegedly asked for a bribe, the district health official contacted the Inspector General of Government for advice.

“The IGG referred him (the district health official) to the police in Kampala,” the source told IWPR.

A police source close to the case told IWPR that they recorded and have printouts of telephone conversation between both parties.

Patrick Okino is an IWPR-trained journalist.

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