7 March 2007

Uganda: Lawyers Join Judges' Strike

Kampala — LAWYERS announced yesterday that they would go on a three-day strike the very minute the judges, who are on a week long strike, decide to re-open the courts.

At a meeting called to discuss the breakdown of the rule of law in Uganda, lawyers under their umbrella organisation, the Uganda Law Society, unanimously resolved to lay down their tools.

The meeting at Acacia Avenue in Kololo also sought to discuss the implications of the March 1 brazen besieging of the High Court by scores of armed government security operatives, the second occurrence in less than two years.

Hundreds of lawyers attended and condemned what they called "the continuous raping of the Judiciary by the executive." All judicial officers are currently on strike over what they regard as a gross infringement on the independence of the Judiciary by the Executive.

The strike was triggered off by an invasion of the courts by security personnel last Thursday where they intimidated and assaulted civilians, vandalised court property, before they forcibly re-arrested six rebel suspects of the People's Redemption Army shortly after they were granted bail.

President Yoweri Museveni on Monday met Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki in a bid to resolve the standoff between the two arms of the State and later announced that a compromise to end the strike had been reached. Justice Odoki has since called all judges, chief magistrates and registrars in the country for a meeting in which, it is believed, a decision to review their strike will be communicated.

"We regret the manner in which officers of the High Court were treated during the process of re-arresting the suspects," the new ULS President, Mr Oscar Kihika said while opening the meeting.

"Further, we in particular condemn in strong terms the grievous assault occasioned on one of our members, Mr Kiyemba Mutale by a member of the security organs. It is our wish that the responsible officers be brought to book," he added.

I TOO: Former IGG Jotham Tumwesigye (R) with fellow lawyers vote to suspend Attorney General Khidu Makubuya, Police Chief Kale Kayihura, Security Minister Amama Mbabazi, among others from the society in Kampala yesterday. Photo by Bruno Birakwate

With a plaster covering the wound inflicted on his forehead during the High Court fracas, Mr Mutale narrated to colleagues at the meeting sordid details of his assault, with another lawyer, Mr Yusuf Nsibambi.

"We were assaulted by the DPC (Divisional Police Commander of the Central Police Station in Kampala), Ivan Nkwasibwe," Mr Mutale said. Members, who sympathised with him, later adopted a resolution to prosecute Mr Nkwasibwe and other aggressors under a private arrangement.

They assigned that role to Mr Fred Muwema, a Kampala-based lawyer, who has previously conducted the prosecutions of two public officers. Society members also voted overwhelmingly to suspend from the ULS, five high-level government officials for their perceived roles in the run up to the March 1 court siege.

Those suspended include; the Inspector General of Police Maj. Gen Kale Kayihura, Minister for Security Amama Mbabazi, Coordinator for Intelligence Services Gen. David Tinyefuza, the Attorney General Khiddu Makubuya and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Richard Butera. The Solicitor General, Mr Lucian Tibaruha narrowly survived as the majority preferred only to pass a caution.

All of the suspended men are lawyers and therefore de facto members of the Uganda Law Society. "They are a disgrace to the profession and to this country by abusing their authority. We need to censure them," said senior lawyer, Mr Peter Walubiri.

He said the officers ill-advise government, personally order illegal deployments, sanction illegal proceedings against people or fail to diffuse unlawful acts in the country.

There was heated debate surrounding the issue of suspension of the government officials. Some members argued that given the severity of the current crisis, the law society needed to send a strong message of discontent to the Executive.

Members also resolved that proceedings would be filed against the suspended officers in the Law Council Disciplinary Committee for charges of "conduct unbecoming of an advocate". If convicted, the affected may pay heavy fines and face the possibility of being scrapped off the list of advocates.

President Museveni's legal assistant, Mr Fox Odoi, argued that to suspend individuals without first conducting a fair hearing would be a breach of the rule of law the society was trying to safeguard.

Fellow lawyers booed Mr Kihika when he said that the suspensions would be practically meaningless and would therefore reflect badly on the society. Members countered by arguing that it was incumbent on Uganda's legal community to show that it did not want to be professionally associated with lawyers who participated in a flagrant disregard of a judge's decision to grant bail.

Ultimately, through majority vote, the members resolved to suspend the officials but made clear those suspensions could be set aside after a proper hearing had been conducted.

When contacted by Daily Monitor, Gen. Kayihura initially scoffed at the news but said, "They are violating the very principles they profess to standby. I find it very high-handed. I earned my profession. I am lawyer. No one can take that away from me. They cannot take away my legal profession."

Asked to comment about his role in last Thursday's fracas, which the lawyers had used as justification for the suspension, Mr Kayihura said, "I was out of the country. Does (the society) have any proof of misconduct on my part?

Their conduct is extremely prejudicial. There was no investigation. I had no right to speak. They are just a group of self-opinionated, highhanded individuals. They can go to hell."

Attempts to get a comment from the other officers were fruitless as they were all unavailable. In 2005, the ULS resolved to stop recognising Dr Makubuya as head of the Bar, following the November 16, 2005 siege of the High Court by the Black Mambas.

The meeting also resolved to converge at the High Court on the third day of their strike for a "cleansing" ceremony.

Other resolutions included filling proceedings against the government in the Constitutional Court, Uganda Human Rights Commission and at the International Courts of Justice.

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