By Reta Raymond
Associate Special Features Editor
My internship in Uganda was with a law firm that represents one of Uganda’s biggest celebrities, the President of the Forum for Democratic Change, Dr. Kizza Besigye. Dr. Besigye lost the last three presidential elections to President Yoweri Museveni, who has been Uganda’s president since 1986.
In 2006, Dr. Besigye challenged the outcome of the presidential election in the court system. While the court found evidence of ballot rigging and other fraudulent practices, it held that it was not so great as to affect the overall outcome. After his February 2011 defeat, Dr. Besigye proclaimed that even though there was evidence of fraud, challenging the election in the court system would be futile. Instead, he sought to inspire an East African “Arab Spring.” Dr. Besigye became the voice of the opposition group, the “Activists for Change,” which organized the “Walk to Work” campaign to protest commodity prices in 2011.
The peaceful Walk to Work protesters met with a strong police opposition when they began in April and May of 2011. The military and riot police used live ammunition, rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons against the protestors. The government forces killed at least 10 civilians, including two children under the ages of five. These deaths have never been investigated.
Dr. Besigye was arrested numerous times last April and May during the Walk to Work protests. In one confrontation with the police, Dr. Besigye was shot in the hand. Weeks later, Dr. Besigye was put on unofficial house arrest for nearly ten days. When Dr. Besigye was finally allowed to travel to his office, protestors rallied around his vehicle while he was sitting in a traffic jam. Seeing the mob around the doctor’s car, a plain-clothes policeman approached the vehicle and proceeded to bash in the passenger window and use pepper spray on Dr. Besigye at close range. Dr. Besgiye was temporarily blinded by the pepper spray and spent several weeks in Nairobi and the United States for medical treatment. The police contend that Dr. Besigye was carrying a weapon in his car, but media footage clearly shows that he was unarmed.
The first court hearing I attended in Uganda was in regards to the charges against Dr. Besigye on inciting violence, as a result of his arrest during the protests. The hearing, held in the tiny, one room courthouse in Kasangati, a pastoral suburb of Kampala, was filled to the brim with reporters, photographers, cameramen, and curious townspeople. Two prosecution attorneys and two defense attorneys could barely fit on the bench, and the accused squeezed onto one bench by the wall. The atmosphere in the courtroom prior to the hearing was chaotic, with flashing cameras and excited spectators and reporters weighing in on the potential outcome. Outside the courthouse, two dozen police officers in full riot gear wandered through the tall grass and casually joked with one another while leaning on their Kalashnikovs.
After a brief presentation, the prosecutor lamented that they couldn’t find their witnesses or that they could not be present for some reason, and, months later, the charges were eventually dropped. After our client’s matter was heard, five other young men were charged from arrests during the same protest. As the judge spoke to them, they wore blank looks on their faces. The judge asked if they understood and some shook their heads no, so they were given a translation by the clerk. One of the defendants was not present. A member of the audience told me that might have been because court documents are not translated into local languages. The man may have gotten his trial notice, but perhaps he had not been able to understand it.
The lack of an official translator in the judicial system is incredibly problematic in Uganda. While the official language is English, it is not the first language of most native Ugandans. The most common language spoken in Kampala is Luganda, as it is the language of that region’s tribe. However, there are nearly fifty tribal languages spoken in Uganda.
Because there is no official translation system, the court calls for one of the court staff to translate when an accused or a witness can’t speak English. A translator can be anyone who speaks the language, so this can be a guard or a clerk. Even prosecutors have been known to translate. The right of the accused to a competent translator to explain the charges is a staple of international human rights law. When anyone is able to translate, many issues can arise. For example there is no quality control: the “translator” may insert their own perspectives, or they may choose not to translate everything stated.
Another issue I noticed at this and at other trials was that there was no jury. It was particularly odd to not see a jury box at the more formal High Courts in Kampala, which more closely resemble Western courts. The Ugandan judicial system is modeled on the British judicial system and British case law is even binding on the Ugandan courts, so I wondered why that element was not adopted.
I can only speculate, but perhaps the concern was to deter corruption. In Uganda, corruption is a huge issue. Uganda even has an Anti-Corruption Court to decide corruption cases. Jurors could easily be paid for their vote, especially when so much of the population lives in poverty and bribes are widely used in daily life. Also, the consequences for a juror taking a bribe might not be that severe, whereas a judge could lose his job if he was caught. However, it could be easier to pay one judge instead of convincing twelve jurors.
Observing trials in Uganda made me question the American legal system. Everyone bowed before a judge before they entered a courtroom. Attorneys spoke softly and slowly in front of a judge, as a form of respect and also to allow him to take down the proceedings by hand. Opposing parties refer to each other as “learned counsel.” I couldn’t help but wonder if Americans are less respectful of the legal system, generally. Maybe I’m wrong, but certainly it is a little embarrassing that American attorneys are not more respectful of judges and each other. As for the lack of a jury, it is an interesting exercise to question why it was so appalling to me. Perhaps my opinion would be different if I was a Ugandan, where corruption is rampant and perhaps the jurors could be easily bribed. Or maybe I am just not confident that a decision by one judge, in any country, would always be a more rational decision than a consensus by a decision by a jury of peers.