Voice of America (Washington, DC)

Uganda: Govt Fears 'Unprecedented' Rise in Mob Justice

A lack of trust in Uganda's judicial system and a backlog in its courts likely is fueling an apparent rise in violent mob justice, a human rights commission says in calling for a study.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) reports an "unprecedented" jump in anecdotes about mob justice, so it seeks hard data about its incidence and a thorough investigation into its causes. It seeks definitive answers.

Mob justice leads to serious violations of human rights, says Katebalirwe Irumba, a commissioner.

"It is against our constitution and against the laws of this country, especially as it denies the victims of mob justice the opportunity to be taken [through] the due process of law and to be heard," Irumba says.

For instance, at Namuwongo fish market in the capital city of Kampala, vendors laugh and haggle with customers as they scale and chop fresh tilapia. The scene is peaceful enough, but Andrew Wafula, who sells fish, knows this is not always the case.

"Every Tuesday, that is a market day, and people sell things there. Thieves always come, and if they come they steal small things," Wafula says.

An accusation of theft sends the whole market into a murderous rage. Wafula says venders and others will chase a suspect and, "if we catch him, we have to hit him to death. That's the way we do it."

What's driving mob violence?

No one knows the exact reason for the reported rise in violence, although Irumba speculates that youth unemployment and frustration are probable factors.

Wafula gives another reason: a widespread lack of confidence in a justice system that can easily be bought off by a suspect with a little cash to spare.

If a suspect "has his people who have some money, they pay something, very little," Wafula says. "Then they say, 'Instead of taking him to the prison, let's set him free.' If he reaches the hands of police, he will not be punished."

Gerald Abila, a lawyer who works with the poor, says most Ugandans do not see the formal justice system as a realistic way to solve their problems.

"If you look at upcountry and rural areas," he says, "people usually go to courts as an option of last resort. They will not go to the court system immediately."

Legal backlog blamed

Part of the problem, Abila says, is an enormous legal backlog that makes many cases almost impossible to process in a timely manner.

Without any new cases, "using the current systems in place, it would take over 30 years to deal with the cases that are already in the justice system," Aliba says.

The result is that in Uganda, getting caught for a crime such as theft can mean a death sentence - carried out immediately, without a trial.

But even as a market vendor, Wafula says he understands the logic that drives someone to steal: "Demand of school fees, demand of food, demand of everything. He may think that 'If I steal this bike and I sell it, I think I will pay the school fees of my daughter and sons.'"

The UHRC wants to teach the public that mob justice is itself a criminal act. It recommends that police be more rigorous in prosecuting those who attack suspected thieves.

But until Ugandans can better feed their families, Wafula says, there will be more thieves - and mobs will always be there to chase them.

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