Africa, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

DEATH PENALTY: Uganda’s Laws Favour Execution

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Nov 14 2006 (IPS) - In 2003, Corporal James Omedio and Private Abdullah Muhammad stood before a public firing squad for killing Irish Catholic priest Declan O’Toole, his driver Patrick Longoli, and his cook Fidel Longole.

They were executed after they were found guilty by a field court martial, following a trial that lasted two hours and 36 minutes. The hasty execution occurred without access to a fair and independent trial, or a chance to appeal the decision. At the time it generated criticism from the public, rights groups and the international community.

But a report released this year shows that nothing has changed in the last three years – the Uganda army continues to execute any soldier who violates the rights of civilians, and it uses summary executions as a way to clean up its human rights record. The army says that the drastic measures are necessary to curb excessive abuses within its ranks.

“The Progressive Report on Action Taken Against Human Rights Violations by Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) in Northern Uganda 2003-2005,” written by the Ministry of Defence, reported that the army executed 26 soldiers in the region over the last three years.

The executions were carried out either by firing squad or by hanging in the conflict-torn region of northern Uganda, where government troops and rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), headed by self-styled leader Joseph Kony, have been at war since 1986.

Approximately 20,000 soldiers currently are stationed there to protect the citizens who were forced into camps from rebel attacks.

State Minister for Defence Ruth Nankabirwa said the Ugandan army will continue to execute soldiers who violate the rights of other citizens, because that is the law.

“Soldiers who violate the rights of other citizens should be put away,” Nankabirwa told IPS in an interview. “But this (execution) happens once in a blue moon,” she added.

The report indicated that 11 soldiers were executed in 2003, seven were executed in 2004, and another eight in 2005.

No known executions have occurred this year. Yet, a second report, released by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), a Kampala-based human rights organisation, says “several” death sentences were handed down by military tribunals and a few by civilian courts during the first half of 2006.

That report, “Deprivation of the right to life, liberty and security of persons in Uganda, January 2006-June 2006”, released in early November, recommends a review of the military procedures in a bid to streamline the powers of the military tribunals versus those of civilian courts.

The FHRI report also expressed concern that the country’s penal code does not cover military service offenders, and that military procedures are separate from the criminal justice system.

“It is this separation that is partly responsible for human rights abuses, most significantly, the circumvention of the appeals process,” the FHRI report said.

The defence minister, however, is unapologetic. Executing undisciplined soldiers sets an example to deter other soldiers from violating the rights of citizens, Nankabirwa said. “This has maintained the highest standards of discipline in the army,” she said.

The UPDF Act 2005 provides for the regulation of the army in accordance with the 1995 constitution. The act’s “code of conduct” section outlines the purpose of guidance and instilling discipline within the army. Death is the most severe punishment imposed under this law.

Soldiers are tried either by the general court martial, division court martial, field court martial or unit disciplinary committees. The act also includes provisions for appeals under the court martial appeal court. These courts have unlimited jurisdiction to try all persons subject to military law.

Although the constitutional court has held that military courts are subordinate to all civilian courts, the latter consider themselves independent of the former unless the law is changed.

Therefore, soldiers can only appeal to a military court and not civilian courts if they have been convicted by a military court in the first place.

“Through this, the army’s human rights record has progressed to great levels… In the UPDF, these courts have gone a long way to assist the institution in improving and streamlining our human rights record,” the military report stated.

The UPDF, a formation of the National Resistance Army (NRA) a guerrilla movement founded by President Yoweri Museveni in the 1980s has indeed earned itself a reputation of discipline and professionalism to a greater extent in comparison to armies in past regimes.

Since independence, armies were associated with cruelty, torture, murder and other human rights violations. The soldiers carried guns and roamed the city streets, robbing, killing and raping terrified citizens.

“Honestly, I think the disciplinary measures within the army have made the UPDF a clean force in comparison to any we have had before. I remember that when we were younger, the sight of a soldier would scare you because you thought he would harm you,” Henry Nsubuga, an employee at a Kampala bank, told IPS.

“This army (UPDF) is different. They are even friendly, unlike the past ones. These soldiers carry guns and thus hold a lot of power. The temptation to use the weapon can be very high. There is thus need to control them,” Nsubuga added.

Army spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye told IPS the UPDF will continue to use the death penalty because of its history and as a deterrent against reverting to the human rights abuses of the past.

“The history of the military in our country is not very friendly. The military was the greatest violator of human rights and the army was anti-law itself,” he said.

“It is based on that history to put harsh and stringent conditions as far as discipline is concerned in the military, to avoid a repeat of the past.”

This, Kulayigye said, is “to ensure and immunise the institution against the past mistakes of the previous army. And it is no wonder that the UPDF, I believe, is still the most disciplined force in the history of this country.”

Yet while civilian prisoners in Uganda can appeal their sentences, army prisoners cannot. In June 2005, Uganda’s constitutional court struck down the imposition of mandatory death sentences in civilian cases but rejected an appeal by over 400 death-row inmates to completely outlaw capital punishment.

Although capital punishment continues in Uganda, even the defence minister concedes the movement to abolish it is strong.

“We are listening to the debate. If Uganda decides that we should do away with the death penalty all together, then we shall amend the law accordingly,” Nankabirwa said.

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