“Mummy when are they releasing you?” Jeremiah, Olivia Lutaaya’s now 7 years old son, often asks that question of his mother.
Tears immediately well up in Lutaaya’s eyes, as she lets the pain and helplessness, of that question sink in. Abducted from near her home in Namuwongo, a Kampala suburb, Lutaaya has so far, missed 28 months of mothering her child, whom she left with her auntie, when he was still a toddler.
The other big cause of pain for Lutaaya, is when her son asked if she really wanted to kill people, a question that the security forces have refused to answer.
In jail since May 2021, state security agents initially accused her and 31 other supporters of the National Unity Platform (NUP) of attempting to disrupt the swearing in ceremony of Yoweri Museveni’s fifth term as President of Uganda.
The charge was later changed to illegal possession of 13 pieces of explosive devices, when Lutaaya and her co-accused were for the first time since their arrest, brought to the military court at Makindye, in June 2021. Since then, prisons authorities have been bringing Lutaaya and the others to Makindye court at least once every month.
While at Makindye, she often meets her son for a few snatched moments, as she tries not to encourage taking him behind the walls of Luzira women’s prison. She believes Luzira prison is no place for a child and according to her, it is the one real benefit of the regular appearances at the court martial in Makindye.
Abusing Judicial Processes
The case against Lutaaya and her co-accused is mentioned at least once a month, but hearing has never taken off, in what those who interact with this case agree is, a result of the delaying tactics employed by the Uganda’s People’s Defence Forces (UPDF).
Nobert Mao, the Chairman of the Democratic Party and Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, calls what is going on with Ms. Lutaaya and her co-accused, lawlessness of security forces, as the army is subverting and abusing judicial processes.
The UPDF is both prosecuting, hearing, and judging this case and over the last 28 months, has given the appearance of being willfully disorganized and incompetent, so that it can keep them in detention.
One such example of the army’s willful disorder was on September 19, 2023, when Lt Col Raphael Mugisha the army prosecutor claimed he was not able to continue with the case and needed time to get back his witness, a police officer, who was transferred, unexpectedly the night before.
Witnesses suddenly receiving new assignments and therefore failing to appear for court against NUP supporters is a reason that Lt. Col Mugisha has relied on to postpone hearing on more than one occasion.
George Musiisi, the lawyer for the NUP supporters says other tactics include suddenly changing charges against the accused, to include a charge of treachery, when the army had earlier communicated readiness to prosecute the charge of unlawful possession of ammunition.
Musiisi has objected to the treachery charge, as he feels it should be reserved for soldiers. He has also asked the general court to martial to let him, take the introduction of the treachery charge to the constitutional court.
The court martial has rejected this request, the same way it did with his four bail applications. Despite, the prosecution’s failure to progress with trying the NUP supporters, Musiisi, says the court martial has refused to grant bail to 28 of his clients. It only released four in April.
About the refusal to grant bail, the chairperson of the court martial did not bother explaining his decision. He only provided one line saying the 28 prisoners had failed to provide substantial sureties.
“Imagine people put forward their parents, spouses and instead of examining and answering each surety on their merit, he came back with the one line,” says Musiisi.
He also asks; “Who can be more substantial than your spouse or parent?”
Musiisi has, since April filed a fresh bail application, but the general court martial is yet to decide on the hearing date.
In the meantime, Musiisi says these prisoners continue to lose whole chunks of their lives. He talks of boda boda riders, tradesmen and technicians arrested in April and May 2023 whose families have now been evicted from the houses they rented because no one could afford rent.
Then there are others, such as Swaibu Katabi whose mother says he is a tuberculosis patient, whose ailment has gotten worse.
Musiisi also highlights the case of Joseph Muganza, another one of the 28 NUP supporters still in jail, who has collapsed several times, because he is hypertensive. His mother and father have also died during the 28 months he has spent in prison.
Shifra Rukundo, NUP mobilizer who often takes these prisoners food, says they are not even sure if it would be right to tell Muganza that his only surviving parent, who had regularly appeared in court, on the numerous occasions the prisoners are brought to court, is now dead, as the hypertension could get worse.
Mao promises to end the suffering of these NUP supporters soon.
“Let us review this matter at the end of October,” says Mao, who last year accepted a deal that would see the Democratic Party officially work with the NRM.
In exchange, President Museveni appointed Mao the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, while the NRM’s majority in Parliament, voted Gerald Siranda, the DP Secretary General to represent the opposition in the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA).
Mao who at the time of his appointment said he joined the NRM to work on peaceful transition, also promised to work towards freeing political prisoners.
He says that when he was appointed Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, one of his first initiatives was to ask President Museveni for permission to establish a standing Cabinet committee on human rights.
Mao chairs the committee with nine members including the Minister of Internal Affairs, Attorney General and the Secretary General of the ruling National Resistance Movement. He also adds that he asked and was granted permission to meet with the national security council he says is made up of top generals in the UPDF and senior police officers.
Mao says that together with members of the two groups, he will soon get the UPDF to stop trying civilians in the court martial.
“Uganda is a signatory to several international human rights conventions,” says Mao.
He explains that these conventions including the African charter on human and people’s rights prohibit the trial of civilians in military courts.
“Military courts should not have circumstances where they have jurisdiction over civilians,” he says.
He also says that Uganda’s constitution, guarantees independence of the judiciary. It is impossible to achieve this independence, when the army, an arm of the executive is trying civilians.
According to him, the general court martial was intended to only try soldiers.
“The only circumstance under which military courts could have jurisdiction over civilians is for instance, if a civilian acts in a manner which is harmful to security and in my view that should only be if someone cooperates with a foreign state,” he says.
Adding that with the NUP supporters, this has not been the case. He laments the army’s increasing tendency to try civilians at the slightest excuse.
“The trial of civilians in military courts in our country appears to be the rule rather the exception,” he says.
Mao hopes to cure all these ills, when he meets senior army officers in a security council meeting that the President has asked Vice President Jesica Alupo to convene.
Arbitrary Arrest is How Museveni’s Government Works
Lubega Makaaku, Mao’s longtime nemesis in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs is mistaken in thinking that security forces under Yoweri Museveni’s government can reform.
Changes that end the UPDF’s arrest of civilians cannot happen because according to Makaaku the NRM arresting some random opposition supporters and arbitrarily keeping them in jail, is how Uganda’s ruling party, which is a dictatorship has always functioned.
“The philosophy of dictatorships the world over is the same and what is being applied to the NUP supporters is what I call your mouth and I crash you,” he says.
In December 2022, Uganda’s constitutional court ruled against military courts trying civilians. Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka, considered a blue-eyed boy in the Museveni government immediately went to the Supreme Court and got a stay to allow military courts continued trial of civilians. Since then, the Supreme Court has not made a move to hear the case, but Mao says he will resolve this problem soon by talking to the Chief Justice.
According to Makaaku, it is not surprising that members of government, including the civilian courts are taking their time to resolve the issue of the court martial trying non-combatants, because that is how dictatorship work.
Makaaku highlights the case Russian President Vladimir Putin who arrests and kills his opponents, while Uganda’s former President Milton Obote used to employ detention without trial.
“In Uganda today, they employ arbitrary and extra judicial arrests, and this is what is happening to all of us now,” he says.
The point to this arbitrariness according to Makaaku is so that President Museveni and his NRM can ensure political participation is theirs exclusively.
The arrests he says do not follow any particular logic, as you can support the opposition and largely go on with your life, if you are not an opposition leader, while your neighbour, who did the same as you, rots in jail.
That feeling of living the decision of whether you are arrested or not to an arbitrary power is something that Rukundo, reechoes, as she reflects on how Lutaaya was arrested.
“I think when it is your day, it just is your,” says Rukundo, explaining how an earlier arrest in Kalangala, had taught these women to be cautious and not to deal with people they did not know.
Makaaku says the point to random arrests and in some cases releases, as was the case with the four NUP prisoners that got bail in April, is to disorient the population in general.
He then points the just concluded Hoima district chairperson by election, where Uthman Mugisha the winner and his closest challenger Vincent Muhumuza were all NRM candidates and together they had 87 per cent of the vote.
“But do you think if the NRM was no longer in power, they would perform that well?” he asks before highlighting the fact that not even half of the over ninety thousand voters in Hoima district voted.
Makaaku was one of the early victims of how NRM contests power with the opposition, as he spent a stint in jail alongside former Minister for the Vice Presidency Vincent Nyanzi. This group, alongside Andrew Lutaakome Kayira, the leader of the Uganda Freedom Movement were detained for treason in the early years of Museveni’s presidency.
Kayira who had fought alongside the President Yoweri Museveni to bring down Milton Obote’s leadership, was later assassinated under unclear circumstances, while other perceived enemies of the NRM like Makaaku, former presidential candidate Francis Bwengye and former minister for the Vice Presidency Vincent Nyanzi took different paths either joining President Museveni or going into exile among the different options.
Since then, NRM has continued this practice of arresting President Museveni’s opponents, keeping them in jail for as long as possible and then releasing them through either the courts or amnesty. High profile cases include that of opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who was accused of treason alongside nine others including his brother Joseph Musaazi Kifeefe who died in prison.
Just after the 2016, it was time to cut to size, Charles Wesley Mumbere, the cultural leader of the Rwenzururu and over 200 of his subjects. The Rwenzururu had since 2001 consistently voted against the NRM.
Jane Francis Abado the director public prosecutions withdrew the case against the Rwenzuru king and his subjects mid this year after, amnesty deal.
Musiisi, the lawyer for the NUP prisoners says amnesty is the carrot that security forces have dangled over his client.
He says that whenever the army claims not to have witnesses in the general court martial, the next step is often to take one of the prisoners, promise amnesty in the hope that these NUP supporters tortured by the different challenges of losing chunks of their lives over the last 28 months, capitulate, admit guilty and implicate their friends.
So far, Musiisi says his clients have resisted the trap set by the security agencies for now.
Lutaaya explains the trick to survive this long ordeal where the choices are to either admitting to a crime you never committed or watching your life waste away, as you sit in a jail cell is acceptance of your fate.
“It is very easy to run mad if you fail to accept you fate,” she says. She then points towards the wire mesh, where she, alongside inmates at Luzira women’s prison spend the hours between 9 am and 3 PM every day.
She explains that there are women down there that have indeed gone insane because they failed to accept their fate and she would not want to be one of those.