Museveni urged to stop trying civilians in military courts

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni during a military exercise. HRW wants him to stop trying civilians in military courts.

The Ugandan government should stop prosecuting civilians in unfair military courts, effective immediately, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released today. Military and civilian prosecutors should work together to resolve pending cases through release or appropriate retrial in civilian courts, and police should stop sending civilians to military custody, HRW said.

The 27-page report, “Righting Military Injustice: Addressing Uganda’s Unlawful Prosecutions of Civilians in Military Courts,” documents the pattern of trials of civilians before military courts, the ways in which such trials violate international legal principles, and the steps Uganda should take to address these fair-trial violations. Since 2002, military courts in Uganda have prosecuted over 1,000 civilians on charges under the criminal code, such as murder and armed robbery. A 2006 Ugandan Constitutional Court ruling, upheld on appeal in 2009 before the Supreme Court and consistent with international law, that military courts are not competent to try civilians accused of common crimes has not been enforced.

“Prosecuting civilians in military courts may have been a matter of convenience and expediency for President Yoweri Museveni’s government” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at HRW. “But it is unjust and unlawful under both Uganda’s constitution and international and African human rights law.”

At least 341 cases involving civilians are awaiting trial or judgment before military courts. Over the years, Museveni has repeatedly defended the prosecution of civilians by military courts, despite the Constitutional Court ruling.

Ugandan military authorities have indicated that they are contemplating amending the practice of prosecuting civilians, but no clear decision has been made about how to address this deeply entrenched system of rights violations. There is no mechanism in place to remedy the situation for the hundreds of civilians already serving prison sentences as a result of unfair military trials.

The prosecution of civilians before military courts violates human rights standards in a number of ways. Military courts do not meet the requirements of competence, independence, and impartiality under international law to try civilians. Cases before the military courts fail to respect fundamental fair trial rights, such as the right to present a defense, the right against self-incrimination, and the prohibition on the use of evidence procured by torture. These rights violations are magnified in cases in which the death penalty is imposed.

“If the Ugandan military is to live up to its much-proclaimed professionalism, it should abandon subjecting civilians to a military jurisdiction, which is a stark violation of professionalism and international law,” Burnett said. “The military needs to take clear and concrete steps to redress the past decade of unlawful prosecution and convictions of civilians.”

Ugandan military courts have sentenced civilians to severe penalties, including death sentences. For example, in September 2010, 20-year-old Judith Koryang was sentenced to death for killing her husband, a member of the Ugandan military. She contended that she was abused by her husband and that he had threatened to force her from their home after she tested positive for HIV.

She pleaded guilty and was represented by a military defense lawyer, who did not raise a legal objection that the military courts were not competent to hear the case. The military court said the death penalty “should serve as an example to all women married to soldiers to desist from plotting to kill their husbands over petty issues.”

In addition to halting all pending cases, Uganda should meet its legal obligations to remedy the situation for civilians serving prison terms handed down by military courts, Human Rights Watch said. To carry out these steps efficiently and effectively, military and civilian prosecutors should collaborate to identify all military court cases involving civilians and provide a remedy for each defendant.

“Uganda needs to set up a review process for all cases involving the wrongful detention and prosecution of civilians before military courts and make sure each defendant has access to an effective remedy,” Burnett said. “This problem will not just go away. The government should provide for release or retrial in accordance with international fair trial standards.”



One thought on “Museveni urged to stop trying civilians in military courts

  • July 31, 2011 at 12:06 am

    Dear Editor
    The HRW (Human Rights Watch) is on a complete trajectory where it makes charges that NRA is a government governing a state called Uganda which is incidentally inhabited by ‘people’ and ‘biological substances’. I will not dwell on the latter because ‘biological substances’ are exactly that – dispensible. I do not want to miss this swipe that on occasion some careerists ‘people’ are associated with ‘biological substances, for unknown reason(s).

    Now about ‘people’ – indispensibles. With the advent of the NRA taking over the apparatuses of the Uganda state, no other than ‘Gen Amos’, its titular leader stated, to paraphrase – ‘now that we have seized the treasury, how will anybody overthrow us?…. blah blah blah ….something to that effect; BTW my ear was glued to a loudspeaker. The mix of cowdung in my skull vibrated emitting a message to my mind that Uganda as a state had no meaning or usefulness except the ‘TREASURY’. The NRA became the state of Uganda and vice versa. Its ‘people’ formed an orderly queue not ONLY to swell its ranks but build a pyramidal structure to ensure that contents of the TREASURY is ‘girded’ – ring-fenced. If I may add, special schools were erected/constructed to accommodate this surge/demand and latter on ungazzetted NGO-based schools have mushroomed. My guess is that the TREASURY was and is handy.

    To date there is no dividing line between the NRA and the state – Uganda. The consequences of this has been an NRA reinforced/concreted pyramid base and attendant regimentation of its ‘people'; meaning – political accountability is unnecessary and separation of powers is an antiquated practice. Its ‘people’ when occasionally inconvenienced do complain, shall I say, appeal to such bodies like HRW but hide from them the facts about the arrangements that cause the condition. To this end HRW assume(s) that they are dealing/handling/addressing like with like – NOT SO. I suspect the ‘people’ will have to tell it like its i.e. to align their complaint/inconveniences in line with the practices/template(s) that HRW operates/uses.

    Now why would ‘people’complain/appeal to bodies external to the NRA? My guess is that there is low-level concern about the use/misuse of the TREASURY or the outflow from it is skewed. A small litmus test on the appellants to bodies external to the NRA, I suspect will turn from ‘yellow’ to some other colour(s), which like day follows night, may not be very appealing to the NRA.


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