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Prosecutors strike: High court stops criminal cases

From September, the judiciary had planned to vigorously work through more than 1,000 criminal cases pending in different courts.

This valiant effort aimed at cutting back the huge case backlog which stands at 150,000 has been thwarted with the High court’s Criminal division finally announcing that it has been forced to suspend its criminal sessions.

The suspension announced in a circular by the deputy registrar of the division, Emmanuel Baguma, on Monday cited the crippling strike by prosecutors in the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

It is over a month now since prosecutors took off their robes. Prison warders have been taking suspects to court almost daily only for cases to flop. It had become too costly, inhumane and unsustainable.

Solomon Muyita, the judiciary’s senior communications officer

The government, is already under immense pressure as the number of unattended patients keeps climbing up in public hospitals where doctors are into the second week of a similarly stifling industrial action.

Baguma’s circular advised prisons authorities not to present criminal suspects for hearings until further notice. Yesterday, Solomon Muyita, the judiciary’s senior communications officer, told The Observer that by the end of year, it had been estimated that the High court circuits would have held about 21 criminal sessions -- which translated into an estimated 840 capital cases to be heard.

At the criminal division of the High court which is based in Kampala, the plan was for four criminal sessions to be handled by judges Yasin Nyanzi, Wilson Masalu Musene,  Flavia Senoga Anglin and Wilson Kwesiga.

Each of the judges was supposed to hear about 40 cases. That carefully crafted plan has been washed down the drain now that the government appears unlikely to make good on its promise to increase salaries of public prosecutors.

“We did not communicate explicitly that the criminal session has been suspended but it wasn’t making sense for prisoners to keep on coming to court without their cases being heard,” Muyita said.

By the time the judiciary decided to cancel the trial sessions, a high-profile treason case in which Aisha Nakasibante, sister-in-law to the controversial Australian-based cardiologist Dr Aggrey Kiyingi, had, like many others, flopped for the umpteenth time.  

Until Monday, the judiciary’s position communicated through Principal Judge Yorokamu Bamwine was that all judicial officers would continue handling criminal cases despite the industrial action.

Bamwine had instructed judicial officers “to exercise the law and their powers in determining the fate of cases before them”.

He cited Article 126(2)e of the Constitution which provides for the delivery of substantive justice to all parties, which he said ought to be taken into account given the current situation.

“In a criminal case, the main players; namely, the prosecution, the accused and the victim all deserve justice. Accordingly, the absence of prosecutors calls for heightened exercise of judicial discretion; that is, the exercise of judgement by a judicial officer based on what is fair under the circumstances and guided by the rules and principles of law,” Bamwine said.

By the time Baguma issued Monday’s circular, Frank Baine, the Uganda Prisons Service spokesperson, had lamented about how prisoner authorities were wasting fuel to transport suspects to court only for their cases not to be heard.

“For now, it’s like a month and we take prisoners to court but nothing happens and then we bring them back,” Baine said. “This was simply unsustainable because even after the strike of prosecutors we shall have to use fuel to take them to court.”   

Baine estimated that when he aggregates the consequences of both the prosecutors’ and earlier judicial officers’ (judges and magistrates) strikes, over 10,000 suspects have been denied justice.

“We are stuck with over 10,000 suspects who are not getting justice,” Baine said, “But what can we do? We shall keep them here until the prosecutors end their strike.”   

The Uganda Association of Prosecutors (UAP) resumed their strike in October after the lapse of a 90-day ultimatum given to government to address their grievances.

They are demanding a minimum salary for lower-ranking officials to be raised to a least Shs 9 million. Currently, the lowest-ranking state prosecutor earns a gross salary of Shs 645,000.  

The government had committed to increase salaries of state prosecutors days after they first laid down their tools in July. In the commitment, Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Major General Kahinda Otafiire promised that the increment would be effected within three months through a supplementary budget to be passed by parliament.

Otafiire’s pledges were not fulfilled, triggering this round of industrial action which has paralysed work in courtrooms around Uganda. Contacted for comment on Tuesday, UAP president David Baxter Bakibinga said “there was no development worthy to be written about”.

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