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Will Constitutional Court strike down charge of treason for demo suspects?

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THE LAW | The Constitutional Court Thursday started hearing a petition challenging the slapping of treason charges on persons arrested while participating in demonstrations.

The Ugandan law punishes treason with the maximum ever penalty: death.

The petition was filed by the Executive Director of Foundation for Human Rights Initiative Dr Livingstone Sewayana in 2011 at the peak of the opposition led Walk to Work Protests.

It seems Sewayana moved to file a the petition after Opposition activists, Ingrid Turinawe, Sam
Mugumya and Francis Mwijukye (now MP) had been charged with treason when they were found on the streets engaging in the walking to work protests.

The charges were later dismissed by the Nakawa High Court for want of prosecution. Sewanyana’s petition which was tellingly supported by affidavits sworn by Turinawe, the head of mobilisation at FDC, and Mwijukye now Buweju County MP, also challenged section 24 of the Police Act, saying that it’s in direct contravention of Articles 24 and 29 of the Constitution.

Ssewanyana argues that section 24 gives Police blanket powers to arrest people without reasonable grounds.

When the petition came before the court, Medard Sseggona, who represented Sewanyana was first tasked to explain if it all there were any issues in the petition worthy interpreting.

The case is being heard by Justices Alfonse Owiny-Dollo, Remmy Kasule, Frederick Martin Egonda-Ntende, Christopher Madrama and Ezekiel Muhanguzi.

Before going into the merits of his petition, Justice Madrama was joined by Owiny-Dollo in pressing
Sseggona to explain if at all the petition raises “a controversy” which would spur the five judges to interpret the Constitution.

“Not every illegality is brought before the Constitutional Court for interpretation,” Madrama said. “Some things are obvious, they just need rights enforcement which is filed before the High Court. You must raise serious issues.”

Cornered, Sseggona said there is a need to strike down Section 24 of the police Act since its goes against key pillars and tenets of the Constitution.

To explain away the argument that he could have filed the case in the High Court, Sseggona said that it’s only the Constitutional Court which has powers to annul sections of an Act of Parliament such as section 24 of the Police Act, which is the petitioner’s prayer.

“It’s only the Constitutional Court which can do that,” Sseggona, who is also the Busiro East MP, said. “Not the High Court.”

With the judges seemingly satisfied with that explanation, Sseggona moved on arguing that when section 24 of the Police Act is read critically, it gives Police powers to hold suspects in their cells beyond the constitutionally mandated 48 hours, thus a need to expunge from the records.

The Ugandan constitution states a person arrested shall be brought to court not later than 48 hours from the time of her/his arrest.

The period runs from the arrest of the person, and if no charges are brought against the person arrested at the end of that period the person shall be then released.

“There is a need to stop police from violating the rights of Ugandans who are engaged in demonstrations and civic activities,” Sseggona said.

Though he was sailing on well, Justice Egonda-Ntende pegged Sseggona back when he asked him to explain if at all Turinawe, Mwijukye or Mugumya were arrested under the now impugned section of the Police Act.

Sseggona seemed not have a ready answer and following some minutes of hesitation, he had no option but to say “no”.

In rebuttal, Senior State Attorney Richard Adrole told the judges that the petition is dead on arrival since according to him it was filed in the wrong court.

Adrole insisted that Sseggona should have filed the petition in the High Court under Article 5O of the Constitution which stipulates how rights are enforced in Uganda.

The article Adrole cited says, “Any person who claims that a fundamental or other right or freedom guaranteed under this Constitution has been infringed or threatened, is entitled to apply to a competent court for redress which may include compensation.”

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