In the last two years, courts in Uganda have delivered two major judgments that have brought to the light the illegal prosecutions carried out under the military justice system in the country. On 9th July 2008 the Supreme Court of Uganda ruled that the trial of civilians by the General Court Martial (GCM)is unconstitutional and GCM is an inferior court to the high Court and other courts of record.

This was a long awaited ruling that came out in light of a case where twenty five men suspected

Brig. Bernard Rwehururu new chairman of the General Court Martial and Lt. Gen. Ivan Koreta
Brig. Bernard Rwehururu new chairman of the General Court Martial and Lt. Gen. Ivan Koreta. A New Vision photo

to members of Peoples Redemption Army (PRA) – wispy rebel group allegedly operating in DRC- were arrested in March 2003 by the army and charged before the GCM on 16 April 2003 with the offense of treason and later remanded on 15 May 2003 to Makindye military prison.

For more than two years, the military kept these men under detention and refused to honour High court orders for the suspects to be given access to lawyers and their relatives and to be granted bail.

Their treason trial together with FDC leader Dr. Kiiza Besigye is one of the cases that have tainted President Museveni’s regime when the regime sent the infamous black Mambas, a paramilitary group, to storm the High Court and re-arrested the suspects after being granted bail later in November 2005.

By detaining and trying PRA suspects with charges ranging from treason to terrorism, the military attracted some “unwanted attention” from the public.

The PRA case generated public disapproval; it was the first time that Ugandans and specifically the legal fraternity took a hard look at the workings of the military justice system especially the General Court Martial.

At the time of the Supreme Court ruling last year, most of the men who had been incarcerated for more than three years had chosen the easier way out, to confess that they were indeed rebels and get amnesty instead of putting up with the prolonged trial that seemed to have no end.

But this ruling meant that no other civilian would ever be subjected to the whims of the miltary court if the court order is respected–the military has in the past ignored court rulings.  Although the military never really reacted to the ruling with Lt. Gen. Ivan Koreta as the GCM chairman, I believe it is time for Ugandans to demand that the military pledges to respect such court decisions.

Nevertheless the Supreme Court ruling was a big step but it wasn’t and shouldn’t be the last effort to check illegalities within the military justice system.

Ugandan soldiers. Some have suffered under an unjust miltary justice system
Ugandan soldiers. Some have suffered under an unjust miltary justice system

Early this year, in February, the Constitutional Court gave another stinging ruling for the Ugandan military justice system this time related to the prosecution of cases against soldiers. It ruled that the march 2002 execution of two UPDF soldiers in Kotido district by the Field Court Martial was illegal because they were denied right to appeal.

Pt. Abdallah Mohammed and Corp. James Omedio were executed after a trial for the murder of an Irish Catholic priest, the Rev. Fr. Declan O’Toole and two other civilians.

They were convicted, sentenced to death and immediately executed by firing squad. The Uganda Law Society and Jackson Karugaba filed a petition to the Constitutional Court and in his ruling Justice Amos Twinomujuni said: “I would hold that the accused persons in the Kotido trial were entitled, as a right, to appeal through the military court systems up to the Supreme Court.”

Then he said that even if the Supreme Court had repealed their appeal, the accused soldiers had a right to hear if the president could grant a prerogative of mercy.

While I was still in Kampala I spoke to lawyers that are familiar with the military system and have represented some people there.They said most soldiers are detained for long without trial, and there is unfair trials while some soldiers are framed. Because most cases if not all are tried in Camera, the public never gets to know how things go in that court. Most of them are not well off to get lawyers, they serve sentences in jails and are dismissed from the army with no one ever coming to their rescue. They say a few things have improved since Gen. Elly Tumwine was replaced but the system leaves a lot to be desired. There’re still many complaints that there is a lot of influence-peddling from army top ranks.

It’s reported that the army has executed 26 people over the past three years. There are currently many UPDF soldiers in the condemned sections of Luzira Upper Prison and Jinja Main Prison

A report by Foundation for Human Rights Initiative says “the greatest problem currently facing these inmates is a failure to receive an appeal against their convictions and sentences, a clear breach of their constitutional rights. They appear to have been left in legal limbo, with neither the military nor the civilian courts taking responsibility”

The report said there are over 30 military personnel in the condemned section of Luzira Upper Prison who have not yet received an appeal, despite claims that their appeals have been noted in the GCM. All of these soldiers were convicted by these lower military courts and sentenced to death.

In their 2005 report on Uganda, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) highlighted what they believed to be a ‘scapegoat policy’, where low ranking soldiers are imprisoned and executed to show observers that the army deals swiftly and effectively with personnel who commit crimes. It is this effort on the side of the government to show that they have security issues under control and that their military is incomparable to past regimes that has made many blind to the injustices against UPDF soldiers.

I was working on this story and I thought I had got a headway when someone tried to get me in touch with a soldiers that served a sentence for years after failed attempts to appeal and he was now dismissed from the army but he withdraw from giving the interview at last minute fearing for his security.

Miltary justice system is hardly reported on in Uganda nad the media seems to follow only high profile officer cases, the likes the Henry Tumukunde, and the famous ghost soldier cases. With new leadership at the GCM, I think these stories need to come out not just reporting about the change of the chair.

Some lawyers were calling for changes in the military justice system. One called for a UK kind of system where prosecution of military officers is controlled not by the military, but by an independent body, the Service Prosecuting Authority which insulates the military justice system from abuse from within.

Below is how Uganda military justice works.

Unit Disciplinary Committee

Field Court Martial

Division Court Martial

General Court Martial and Court Martial Appeal Court.

The latter two sit as appellate courts, with the Court Martial Appeal Court acting as the highest appellate court in the army judicial system.