Uganda: Lawyers Ask Government to Free Minor Offenders

Kampala — A number of organisations offering free legal services asked government to release prisoners on minor offences, those who are about to complete their jail sentences and those who have been disciplined while in jail.

The lawyers say the current rate of overcrowding in prisons is a recipe for disaster in the wake of coronavirus pandemic.

The organisations include Avocats Sans Frontières, Chapter Four, Legal Aid Service Providers Network, Muslim Centre for Justice and Law and National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders.

In a joint petition to the Chief Justice, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Inspector General of Police and the Commissioner General of Prisons, the organisations say they are concerned that official government statements and actions, including the practice directions issued by the Judiciary have omitted to address the issue that prisons and suspects in police cells are high-risk environments for transmission.

The organisations said while government has developed and carried out a robust response by prioritisinghandwashing facilities and encouraging individuals to self-isolate as a key part of tackling the coronavirus, not enough has been done to protect prisoners.

"Particularly relating to Prisons, the Uganda Prisons Service has halted visits to prisoners from members of the public, which in our opinion does not in any way address the issue of crowding within the prisons. As of September 2018, the occupancy rate within Uganda prisons stood at 315.4 per cent," the lawyers say in the petition.

They said government also needs to consider the staff-prisoner ratio of one staff to seven prisoners.

They say as the situation escalates and restrictive measures are imposed, there is a high risk that this will cause tensions in prisons across the country.

"Prisoners are aware and/or will learn of the risks associated with Covid-19. With the threat of rising tensions and possible restrictions, the low staff-to-prisoner ratio will put a severe strain on the management of prisons as prison officers will face unprecedented challenges," the joint communique states.

They asked government to release the prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences, those charged with petty crimes as well as those in the age group at risk or with pre-existing health conditions and whose detention is no longer justified.

They also said in consultation with the competent judicial authorities, government must grant conditional release to convicted prisoners who comply with the procedural conditions.

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