Posted by: Nicole | July 1, 2009

Western Uganda Part I

When I was asked to go on a trip with the Chief Justice and his staff I jumped at the opportunity to see more of Uganda. Over the course of three days I visited several towns, including Masaka, Lyantonde, Mbarara, Ntungamo, and Bushenyi, and had the opportunity to see several High Courts, Magistrate Courts, and Prisons.

Magistrates Court in Lyantonde, Uganda

Magistrates Court in Lyantonde, Uganda

The purpose of the trip was for the Chief Justice to inspect both the courts and prisons in Western Uganda and determine what resources needed to be allocated to the area. I think the most stricking thing about the trip was the lack of resources and facilities in the area. While it is clear that there is a lack of space and judges in Kampala, the problems are amplified in the smaller towns and cities. In recent years Uganda has experienced tremendous population growth and the government infrastructure is struggling to keep up. Western Uganda covers a relatively large area (that seems even larger since many of the roads are poor and therefore travel takes longer), and it has been divied into relatively large districts (like counties). These districts have one, maybe two High Court Judges to decide all of the cases in the district (which have hundreds of thousands of people) and a limited number of magistrates. This creates a huge amount of backlog for the courts. All of the judges and the magistrates that I met on the trip discussed the lack of judges and magistrates as one of the biggest problems that they faced and requested that the Chief Justice allocate more for the area. The judges and magistrates were doing very well at getting rid of as many cases as they could, but they merely do not have enough time to hear all of the cases on their own and the backlog therefore continues to grow.

There are a few reasons for the lack of judges and magistrates, but the major reason is a lack of funding. The judiciary is reliant on Parliament to allocate them with more money in the budget and enough money is just not being allocated. The Chief Justice was able to secure more money for the next fiscal year at the budget meeting that was held earlier this summer and the hope is to soon be able to appoint one more judge to the region and a few more magistrates, but since this is a nationwide problem certain areas will still be lacking judges, even with this increase in the budget.

Prisoners at Masaka Prison

Prisoners at Masaka Prison

The backlog causes substantial problems for criminal cases and the prison system. Most of the prisons in Western Uganda were designed to hold around 100 prisoners each and are currently holding over 600 prisoners each. Prison overcrowding results in prison conditions that are less than ideal (by Ugandan standards) and the government simply cannot afford to take care of the prisoners. Many prisoners have to rely on relatives to bring them the basic things that they need to live, such as clothing and blankets.

When we talked with the prisoners from the different prisons they all complained of the backlog and their inability to come in front of a judge or magistrate quickly. Out of the approximately 600 prisoners being held at each prison about 100 of the prisoners had actually been convicted of a crime. The rest of the prisoners are either waiting to be committed or on remand. If a prisoner has not been committed it means that they have been arrested, but not brought in front of a judge or magistrate and told formally what crime they are being accused of. Constitutionally they are supposed to be committed within 80 days or be release, but in actuality this often does not happen. Two female prisoners we met have been in prison for 19 months and not been committed. If a prison is on remand that means they have been committed, but they have not had a trial yet and have therefore not been convicted. There are prisoners who have been on remand for five or six years. It is important to note that those waiting to be committed and on remand have not been convicted yet and are innocent, since Uganda has a system of innocent until proven guilty. They are merely suspected of a crime and yet may spend years in prison (if they are convicted this time is often not taken off of the sentence they are given). The reason that they sit in prison waiting to be committed or on remand is because there are not enough judges and magistrates to go through the cases, the police are still investigating the crime (which takes a long time because of the lack of forensic equipment) and the system of bail is not properly set up. People are either not given bail, cannot afford bail, or do not understand bail (many people in the rural areas think they are being asked to give a bribe to the court when they are asked to pay bail. The other issue is the lack of enforcement when people released on bail flee and the relative ease in being able to disappear because there is no national identification system in Uganda.

More to come soon about my trip to Western Uganda and my thoughts about the prisons and courts that I saw there.

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Responses

  1. Thx for the post!!


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