When he was sentenced on Monday to a 40-year jail term for murder, kidnap and aggravated robbery, the burly Muhammad Ssebuwufu remained composed but on his way out of the dock his mask of collected calm slipped as he confronted journalists.
“I have been framed, I never killed anyone,” he wailed as Uganda Prisons warders whisked him from the High court Kampala moments after Justice Flavia Anglin Senoga sentenced him and seven others to 40 years in prison.
“I’m going to appeal definitely because some of the state witnesses asked me for Shs 10 billion or else they would go in court and give evidence against me. It was police that arrested her; how then do you convict me of kidnap?” Ssebuwufu said as he walked out of the dock.
Ssebuwufu, 36, will be 76 years old when he completes his sentence. Ssebuwufu, the proprietor of Pine Car bond located on Lumumba Avenue in Kampala and seven others; Godfrey Kayiza, Philip Mirambe, Yoweri Kitayimbwa, Paul Tasingika, Damaseni Ssentongo, Shaban Odut and Steven Lwanga [a special car hire driver sentenced to seven years imprisonment] were a fortnight ago convicted for their role in the murder of former Centenary Bank employee, Betty Donah Katushabe, who they accused of failing to pay a balance of Shs 9m for a car she bought from the dealership.
“Upon hearing the submission of all counsels, and giving them the best consideration that I can under the circumstances, the convicts are sentenced as follows; on count one, which is murder, the convicts…are sentenced to 40 years imprisonment each. On count two, which is aggravated robbery, they are sentenced to 20 years imprisonment each in addition to which they should jointly pay compensation of Shs 100 million to the family of the deceased. On count three, which is kidnap with intent to murder, they are sentenced to 30 years imprisonment each…” Senoga ruled sending the courtroom into loud murmurs, tears of joy and sorrow. Ssebwufu’s friends, who packed the courtroom and the outside followed proceedings from windows and live television on their smart phones. On hearing the sentence, they questioned the objectivity of the judge.
“She’s been biased; you could clearly hear it from her words,” one old man told a colleague.
“Does she know what 40 years mean? Herself she might not be 40 years old; how can she then sentence someone to all that time?” another teary young man said in exasperation.
Katusabe’s relatives, many of whom were wearing T-shirts with inscriptions, “No one will spill blood and get away with it,” thanked God for justice served.
“I have heard him and his lawyer say he has young children to look after; what about our sister, didn’t she have children? We are contented with the punishment; even if it was only for five years, it would be fulfilling because a person who has been calling himself untouchable has finally been touched,” an emotional Sylvia Tumusiime, a sister to the late Katusabe said.
Her brother Brian Mzaghala said as a family, they are not even interested in the Shs 100m compensation.
“We don’t want blood money; our sister’s life isn’t worth Shs 100m. You don’t know how many times we were approached to try and silence us with promises of millions,” Mzaghala said.
Earlier, Ssebuwufu had joined his lawyers to ask the judge to be lenient in her sentence.
“For all the time I have been alive, I have never committed any offense, I have 68 orphans I’m looking after. I picked some of these children from the street, others their parents died and I made a commitment to look after them,” Ssebuwufu said. His lawyers led by Caleb Alaka, Evans Ochieng and Robert Irumba had asked court to spare Ssebuwufu and his co-accused the death penalty and long custodial sentences.
“He’s a young man aged 36 years, a married man with seven children, he’s one of the few serious businessmen we have in this country. His business empire currently employs 500 Ugandans. A long custodial sentence or death penalty will definitely lead to the collapse of the empire and many Ugandans will be jobless and his seven children will drop out of school and most likely will end up as street children,” the lawyers said.
Earlier, prosecution lawyers led by Alex Ojok had asked court to hand down the ultimate death sentence arguing that the manner and aggression with which Katusabe was killed was unacceptable. Senoga declined Ojok’s advice but agreed that the conduct of the convicts was deplorable.
“The conduct of the convicts and the impunity with which they carried out the offenses was most despicable considering that the matter over which the deceased was abducted, tortured and robbed and eventually killed could have been settled by way of a civil suit. The convicts ought not to have taken the law in their own hands when they had an alternative under the law,” Senoga said, adding, “By giving those sentences, the court hopes to send a strong message to the community, that disputes of any kind ought to be settled peacefully and that any person should refrain from taking the law into their own hands, the convicts’ age of being young or of advanced age does not save them from custodial sentence.”