As state continues to lose high-profile cases:
With the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Richard Buteera, losing many big cases, many Ugandans are wondering why his department is failing.
The DPP is under fire from the judiciary (which accuses the DPP of presenting weak cases), the government (which is losing many cases) and the public. Michael Mubangizi explores the loopholes that have made the DPP a laughing stock of the legal populace.
Justice Paul Mugamba of the Anti-Corruption court was particularly ticked off a fortnight ago by the curious case of three ministers Sam Kutesa, John Nasasira and Mwesigwa Rukutana accused by the Inspectorate of Government of causing a loss of Shs 14bn in Chogm funds. During the trial, no single prosecution witness could pin the ministers on anything. And ultimately, the hapless judge had to let them walk away.
On their way out of court, the rather unsurprised ministers said they enjoyed the court "drama", which they described as a waste of their "time and money."
Prosecutor Sydney Asubo cut a frustrated figure. All his witnesses, whether by design or not, didn't try hard enough to pin the accused. Indeed, Asubo had to be restrained by the judge from declaring his witnesses hostile, much to the amusement of those in court. And Justice Mugamba had no kind words for the DPP's office.
"It has become fashionable for government bodies to present weak cases before courts. Clearly, the evidence assembled by the prosecution cuts no ice. It shows nowhere that the accused persons are culpable, so it wastes time, resources and erodes the credibility of prosecution agencies," Mugamba said.
Asubo simply said he would, later, consider whether to appeal.
Cycle of losses:
Yet this loss was not isolated. The DPP has lost several high-profile cases over the last three years. When cases have not been lost, the DPP simply withdrew them from court, 'for lack of sufficient evidence' or because the 'state lost interest' altogether after years of hearing.
Between April and May 2012, the DPP withdrew terrorism charges against 14 people, who were part of the 25 arrested during the September 2009 Buganda riots sparked by government's decision to stop the Kabaka of Buganda from visiting Kayunga district. In May 2012, Justice Ralph Ochan also dismissed terrorism charges against 11 Buganda riot suspects after prosecution failed to adduce incriminating evidence against them, although they had been in jail for three years.
A month later, the DPP looked on as another 13 terrorism suspects, including journalist Patrick Otim walked free. Justice David Wangutusi ruled that the evidence against the accused was full of lies and inconsistencies, and couldn't be relied on. Two more suspects had earlier been released after the DPP dropped charges against them.
Concerns over DPP:
The losses have attracted the anger of civil society, which accuses the DPP's office of failing to do its work. The board Chairperson of ActionAid Irene Ovonji Odida, wants the office "to prosecute and bring the right evidence, not to call witnesses to testify in favour of the accused like in the recent Chogm corruption case involving three ministers."
Lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi couldn't agree more, but he suggests that the DPP has himself to blame.
"The DPP has failed to take advantage of the constitutional independence that he has and has allowed [himself] to be used by politicians."
Rwakakuzi wonders why the DPP sanctions many cases that shouldn't go to court, citing the numerous treason charges against FDC officials including party Women league leader Ingrid Turinawe.
"When you read her charge sheet, it doesn't bear any treasonous intent," he says.
Yet sometimes even the state seems to doubt the DPP's abilities. In 2006, for instance, the state hired a private firm, Kampala Associated Advocates, at a whopping Shs 2.5bn, to prosecute the treason case against former FDC President Kizza Besigye.
In DPP's defence:
Bruce Kyerere, the former President of Uganda Law Society, says the DPP's job is sensitive and its actions, however objective, are bound to stir controversy. He has high regard for the DPP - Richard Buteera.
"It is unlikely that people will agree with his decisions. Many times [the public] doesn't have the information that the DPP has," Kyerere says.
Consequently, even when he discontinues a case, the DPP is not bound to give reasons for his action. But perhaps the person, who best understands Buteera's predicament, is Shem Byakagaba, who worked in the DPP's office with the current head.
"The office, by its nature, has lots of pitfalls and challenges including poor funding, partisan police and political controversies which one can't avoid; so, he is doing the best he can," Byakagaba says.
Byakagaba also recalls that in his time, he had to rely on the investigative capacity of the police. "At that time they were thin on capacity," he says.
Ideally, the DPP is supposed to prove the existence of prima facie evidence before sanctioning any charges. The DPP also has powers to approve or reject charges against any accused person. The Constitution states that in exercising his or her powers, the DPP shall have regard to public interest, the interest of the administration of justice and the need to prevent abuse of legal process.
But Buteera insists he is not doing as badly as people think.
"Our conviction rate in the Anti-Corruption court has risen from 27% in the last two years to 57% now," Buteera said, adding that the conviction rate for other cases stands at 55%.
Buteera also argued that some of the cases that have been lost or withdrawn, were initiated by the Inspectorate of Government, not his office. These include cases against former minister Kabakumba Masiko and former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya. On the Buganda riots, Buteera admits that his office withdrew some charges against some people and court also dismissed some cases but refuses to take the blame.
"These cases (burning of a Police station and buses) weren't fabricated. They were real, we did our best," he says, adding that they tried unsuccessfully to have the cases heard earlier.
Asked if he is responsible for the huge case backlog, Buteera protested, saying the allegations are unfounded.
"The [average] period spent on remand has reduced from three years to about 17 months," he said.
Buteera and his team may have tried their best, but in the eyes of many, their best is not good enough.
Buteera at glance:
He has been DPP since 1995. Before that, he was working as Chief Registrar/Permanent Secretary in the Courts of Judicature (1993-1995) and Inspector of Courts (1991- 1993) and magistrate and chief magistrate (1981- 1989.) Born April 9, 1955 in Ntungamo district, Buteera went to Mbarara High School and Nyakasura School.
He holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from Dar es Salaam University and a diploma in legal practice, from the Law Development Centre, Kampala. According to the Constitution, a DPP must be qualified to be appointed High Court Judge.