Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone

March 16, 1999

Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone

While the obvious solution to there being no Resident State Attorney in Gulu would be to appoint one, in May 1998 the DPP told Amnesty International that the nationwide ban on public service recruitment then in force meant that this was not possible [65]. After the Resident State Attorney in Gulu died in late November 1996 the Resident State Attorney in Lira was ordered to take on work in Gulu. However, in July 1997 the vehicle in which he was travelling back to Lira was ambushed by unknown persons. Since then a State Attorney from Kampala has been occasionally sent to Gulu, but this is not a sufficient response to the amount of work to be done.

The first, and most obvious, consequence of prosecutions not proceeding is that a backlog of trials builds up which in turn causes further delay in new cases coming to court. The second is that persons accused of serious crimes are remanded in prison for, at the minimum, the set periods for which the constitution is currently interpreted as precluding the granting of bail. This means that prisons become over-crowded with remand prisoners. A third is that once a case is brought to trial there can be significant difficulties in locating witnesses who in the intervening period may have moved away or died. Again, this causes further delay.

Missing witnesses

In the war zone of northern Uganda the problems surrounding witnesses are especially extreme. Internal displacement and disruption since 1996 means that locating witnesses who have given statements in order to summons them to court is not straightforward. Even when their location is known, summonsing them can be dangerous. A senior judicial officer told Amnesty International how a policeman he once sent to serve a summons on a witness was caught by the LRA and killed. If a witness lives in a camp or an outlying area he or she has to risk travelling to Gulu. If other witnesses do not show up the case may be adjourned and the risk taken for nothing -- a considerable disincentive to being found to receive the summons in the first place.

Soldiers who are witnesses may be on operational duty in a remote detach (army post) or have been transferred out of northern Uganda altogether. As a senior police officer in Gulu put it in May 1998, "many of the soldiers who are witnesses in cases brought in 1996 and 1997 are likely by now to be in the mountains" (in other words, in western Uganda where the government is also fighting against an armed opposition group) [66] The Minister of State for the North, himself formerly a practising lawyer, told Amnesty International that in his experience the UPDF does not always perceive getting witnesses to court as a priority [67]. Other lawyers who have dealt with the UPDF have suggested to Amnesty International that army records of the posting of individual soldiers are poorly kept, to the extent that the UPDF does not always find it easy to locate soldiers.

This interpretation of the army's priorities was borne out to Amnesty International by UPDF officers in Gulu who acknowledged that transferring soldiers to new postings when they are witnesses in court cases causes problems for the judicial process. However, they do not regard this as their problem. The Commander of the 4th Division told Amnesty International "they (soldiers) are going to be transferred. The answer lies in speedy trials" [68]. While it is possible to understand the army's frustration with the slowness of the court process, the notion of a "speedy trial" is a dangerous one if it overrides guarantees of fair trial. It is, however, clear that the current situation does little to secure the protection of human rights.

5.5 Impunity

The starting point of this analysis was the UPDF's strategy of handing over soldiers accused of committing human rights violations to the civilian criminal justice system in order that civilians might see that soldiers are made to account for their crimes. However, the fact of the matter is that few soldiers actually end up in court.