Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uganda: Remand Prisoners Incarcerated for Years

Thousands of detainees said to be denied timely hearing due to ineffective legal and judicial system.
By Evelyn Kiapi
  • Uganda’s chief justice, Benjamin Odoki, says a remand case backlog is a key reason for low public confidence in the country’s judicial system. (Photo: Aapo Haapanen/Flickr)
    Uganda’s chief justice, Benjamin Odoki, says a remand case backlog is a key reason for low public confidence in the country’s judicial system. (Photo: Aapo Haapanen/Flickr)

Despite government efforts to reduce the number of inmates on remand in Ugandan prisons, the majority of inmates still languish in jail, sometimes for years, without a hearing or adequate legal representation.

The capacity of Uganda’s jails is 13,000, but right now there are 32,000 inmates countrywide, 19,500 of whom are on remand, according to prison service spokesman Frank Baine Mayanja.

Kampala-based businesswoman Julianne Sentambule is concerned that her husband Sam has still not been tried after being charged with murder almost two years ago.

“My husband was imprisoned for a murder he allegedly committed in September 2007, at a time when he was on a business trip in Japan,” she told IWPR. “He was arrested in December 2008 when he returned to Uganda to clear his name, after hearing rumours that he was wanted for the murder of his own friend.”

After his arrest, Sam was detained for a week at two different police stations, before being taken to a magistrate’s court to be charged with conspiracy to murder.

He pleaded not guilty and was remanded in Luzira, Uganda’s largest maximum-security prison, while waiting for his case to be heard by the High Court.

Under the Ugandan constitution, anyone accused of murder has the right to have their case heard by the High Court within a year of being arrested.

But, almost two years on from his arrest, Sam is still waiting for the opportunity to answer the charges against him. He has been denied bail three times.

A preliminary hearing has been scheduled on a number of occasions, but each time something has prevented it taking place, such as the judge being out of the country or not being able to deal with all cases in the time allocated.

Juliane is becoming increasingly frustrated with the delay to her husband’s case, which she says is damaging his right to a fair trial.

“They said they had all the evidence against him so why is it taking so long for his case to be heard?” she asked. “Where is justice in this country?”

Sam’s story is just one of thousands of cases of remand prisoners, who have been denied a timely hearing due to an ineffective legal and judicial system.

Thomas Kwoyelo, a former commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, was arrested for war crimes in March 2009. He spent the next 18 months in a Gulu prison, without any legal representation, as Kampala struggled to set up the country’s new war crimes division of the High Court.

On September 6, Kwoyelo was finally transferred to Kampala, where he will stand trial, although a formal date for the start of his trial has not yet been set.

According to the ministry of justice, the number of remand cases that are yet to be heard stands at more than 40,000 – some 32,000 on custodial remand and the rest on bail.

The majority of these cases are offences such murder, treason, terrorism, rape and aggravated robbery – crimes which carry either a discretionary or mandatory death penalty, and which can only be tried by the High Court.

In April, the problem appeared so serious that the government launched an initiative to slash the backlog of cases by 30 per cent – 15,000 cases – by the end of the year.

“This backlog is simply a symptom of a system which is inefficient,” said Paul Gadenya, senior technical adviser for the ministry of justice.

Such inefficiencies include low worker productivity; a shortage of critical human and financial resources across judicial institutions; corruption; an absence of clear monitoring and evaluation; and a failure to respond to rising crime rates.

Uganda’s chief justice, Benjamin Odoki, says that the case backlog is a key reason for low public confidence in the country’s judicial system.

Speaking at the launch of a programme to ease the backlog, Odoki said, “There is no doubt that [the case backlog] violates the right to a fair and timely trial, especially for the poor and marginalised, who spend their hard-earned resources [on legal support] only to be told that their cases cannot be heard.”

Baine Mayanja, from the prisons service, says that at the moment the system does not adequately accommodate inmates who, like Sam, have missed their proposed hearing date.

A judge can hear between 30 and 50 cases in a single session, but if an inmate misses his or her allocated slot then it becomes a problem because the computer records show that the hearing has already taken place.

“When someone is committed to the High Court and they miss out [on a hearing], they have to wait for the next ‘convenient session’,” explained Baine Mayanja. “This is where the trouble comes because that convenient session may never come.”

Gadenya also says that a shortfall of judges and magistrates in the country adds to the problem.

He points out that while the country’s judicial system needs 250 grade one magistrates to be fully functional, there are currently only 105. Moreover, there are 35 chief magistrates instead of the required 50, and 49 High Court judges instead of 80.

He also says that more state attorneys are needed, as the current ones are overloaded with work.

Under the Ugandan constitution, every citizen has the right to a state attorney. But with the latter so overwhelmed, it is no surprise that their cases are often the slowest.

“If a state attorney has 30 cases and another lawyer has only five, then who is going to move faster?” said Baine Mayanja. “That is why those who have money have access to swifter justice than those that don’t.”

He adds that it is also much harder for detainees to get bail if they do not have adequate legal representation.

“It is unfair that the majority of prisoners in this country are people on remand rather than those sentenced as a punishment,” said Bruce Kyerere, president of the Ugandan Law Society. “If you are kept on remand for as long a time as you would be kept if you were serving your sentence, then it makes a mockery of criminal justice.”

Human rights activists want the government to make the legal system more efficient and urge judges to consider giving people alternative sentences, like community service, rather than just opting for jail terms.

“Not everybody who is charged should go to court,” said Kyere. “There could be a system of instant fines, cautions, community service or even bail.”

For its part, the government says that it is determined to tackle the problem by implementing an effective monitoring and evaluation system to enhance accountability and performance across judicial institutions.

The government says that case management committees have now been established in order to deal with issues related to case backlogs. They have also been asked to come up with performance benchmarks, against which the progress of cases can be evaluated.

At the moment, there are no standards to guide the system apart from constitutional provisions and the Children’s Act.

The constitution states that all citizens have the right to a speedy trial, while the Children’s Act says that a child must appear before court within 24 hours of being arrested.

“We would like [performance benchmarks] to say that a magistrate should take on 30 cases in a month and a judge 20,” said Gadenya from the ministry of justice. “There should be standards on the time taken to investigate cases and the time taken to deliver judgements.”

Gadenya says that judges will be held accountable for not meeting their quotas, although it remains unclear how this will be enforced.

“We have heard stories where a judge does only 20 cases a year, which is really unacceptable,” he said. “If there was a system to evaluate them, they would be put on their toes.”

The chief justice certainly appears determined.

“It will not be business as usual,” he said. “Judges, registrars, magistrates, state attorneys and police officers shall clear more cases than they have done in the past. I expect judges to clear not less than 50 cases in a session instead of the usual 30 cases.”

Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kampala.