It is, therefore, opportune that we revisit two political trials in the last century that changed the course of history for the countries concerned, their leaders and people
Two highly charged political trials are underway in Uganda, namely that of Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, and the Arua 33, and that of the former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura.
What transpires at any or both of the trials may have far reaching repercussions on the political landscape in Uganda and the direction the country will take because the death sentence hangs over the heads of all the accused.
Of particular significance is that the trial of the MPs represents the four corners of the country. The north is represented by the newly elected MP for Arua Municipality, Mr Kassiano Wadri, eastern Uganda is represented by Mr Paul Mwiru, Mr Gerald Karuhanga represents western Uganda while Bobi Wine, former MP for Makindye East Mike Mabikke and Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake represent Buganda. The arrest and torture of the MPs has led to worldwide outcry and demonstrations.
When groups of people are incarcerated for their beliefs, one name usually stands out and becomes the rallying call for demands for their release, freedom and justice as was the case with Nelson Mandela in South Africa when 19 ANC leaders were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm, in a suburb of Johannesburg. In Uganda, the rallying point of this outrage has been ‘Free Bobi Wine’, who represents the Arua 33.
It is, therefore, opportune that we revisit two political trials in the last century that changed the course of history for the countries concerned, their leaders and people. These politically motivated trials were those of Fidel Castro and others of Cuba in 1953, and that of Nelson Mandela and others in South Africa 10 years later, 1963 to 64.
The Moncada Barracks attack
At 6am on July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl led a group of approximately 120 rebels, with an additional 40 intending to take the Moncada Barracks at Bayamo, in an attack on the second largest military garrison in Cuba, headquarters of the 400 (others say about 1,000) strong Antonio Maceo regiment, under the command of president Fulgencio Batista.
The attack began poorly. The caravan of automobiles was separated by the time it arrived at the barracks, and the car carrying the guerrilla’s heavy weapons got lost. Fifteen soldiers and three policemen were killed while 23 soldiers and five policemen were wounded during the attack.
Nine rebels were killed in combat and 11 wounded, four of them by friendly fire. Castro recollects that five were killed in the fighting, and 56 were “murdered” later by the Batista regime. Eighteen rebels captured in the civil hospital were immediately executed in the Moncada small-arms target range within two hours after the attack. A handful of rebels, including Fidel Castro, escaped into the nearby countryside but were apprehended shortly thereafter and tried.
Fidel Castro’s trial
Castro made his first court appearance on September 21, 1953, in Santiago as one of the close to 100 defendants arrested after the Moncada attack. Sixty five of these had, in fact, not taken part in the operation. They included leading politicians, among them the nation’s last democratically elected president, Carlos Prío.
Public outrage at the treatment of the prisoners during the trial diminished Batista’s standing among the population. A local judge telephoned Batista’s staff to complain that Batista was reviving the brutal era of former president Gerardo Machado, while a Santiago bishop called upon the courts to spare Castro’s life and sought support from Cuba’s upper class Catholic contingent.
Fidel Castro, a qualified lawyer, took on his own defence, as did two other defendants. All others were defended by a total of 24 attorneys. Castro based his case on the illegality of the Batista regime and the inherent right of the citizen to rebel against what he perceived to be an illegal government.
When asked who was responsible for the attack, Castro replied that “the intellectual author of this revolution is José Martí, the apostle of our independence”. Castro also took part in the court’s second hearing on September 22, 1953, but missed day three (September 25) because the regimental chief had wrongly claimed he was sick.
Castro managed to have a handwritten note handed to the judge in court asking for special safeguards for his life, saying he was under threat in prison.
The court then decided to proceed with the main trial, but instructed for the demands in Castro’s letter to be fulfilled and to grant his separate case a new trial at a later date.
Castro was brought before a different court on October 16, 1953, for sentencing. It was here that he reportedly made his four-hour speech, justifying his actions and outlining his plans for Cuba.
Castro’s speech contained numerous evocations of the “father of Cuban independence” José Martí, whilst depicting Batista as a tyrant.
According to Castro, Batista was a “monstrum horrendum (horrible monster) without entrails” who had committed an act of treachery in 1933 when he initiated a coup to oust then Cuban president Ramón Grau.
Castro went on to speak of “700,000 Cubans without work”, launching an attack on Cuba’s healthcare and schooling, and asserting that 30 per cent of Cuba’s farm people couldn’t even write their names.
The words “History will absolve me” (Spanish: “La historia me absolverá”), are the concluding lines of his statement to the court.
The speech later became the manifesto of his 26th of July Movement.
The defence was so successful that only 31 prisoners were found guilty and most were treated leniently. Nineteen attackers were acquitted along with the 65 civilians. The only two strange women participants in the attack, who had not been armed, received sentences of seven months. Along with three others found to have played a leading role in the attack, Castro’s brother Raúl was sentenced to 13 years on what was then called the Isle of Pines.
Though Castro was sentenced to join his brother in prison for 15 years, the trial elevated him to semi-heroic status on the island.
All the rebels were released after an amnesty granted by Fulgencio Batista in 1955. Castro relocated to Mexico, before returning to Cuba on the Granma yacht in December 1956.
The Rivonia Trial
Often referred to as “the trial that changed South Africa,” the Rivonia Trial took place in South Africa between 1963 and 1964, in which 10 leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) were tried for 221 acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system.
The trial was named after Rivonia, the suburb of Johannesburg where 19 ANC leaders were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm, privately owned by Arthur Goldreich, on July 11, 1963. It had been used as a hideout for the ANC.
Among others, Nelson Mandela had moved onto the farm in October 1961 and evaded security while masquerading as a gardener and cook called David Motsamayi (meaning “the walker”).
The government took advantage of legal provisions allowing for accused persons to be held for 90 days without trial, so the defendants were held incommunicado, withstanding beatings and torture.
Lawyers were unable to see the accused until two days before indictment on October 9, 1963. After dismissal of the first indictment as inadequate, the trial finally got under way on December 3, 1963, with an expanded indictment. Each of the 10 accused pleaded not guilty.
In what was arguably the most profound moment in the trial, Nelson Mandela made a speech in the dock in which he condemned the very court in which he was appearing as ‘illegitimate’. He then proceeded to argue that the laws in place were equally draconian and that defiance of these laws was justified. The trial ended on June 12, 1964.
The trial was essentially a mechanism through which the apartheid government could hurt or mute the ANC. Its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, who was already in Johannesburg’s Fort prison serving a five-year sentence for inciting workers to strike and leaving the country illegally, were prosecuted, found guilty, and imprisoned.
The apartheid regime’s attack on the ANC’s leadership and organisers continued with a trial known as Little Rivonia in which other ANC members were prosecuted in accordance with international laws on terrorism.
Amongst the defendants in this trial was the chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Wilton Mkwayi, who was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Mandela and the other ANC leaders on Robben Island.
The trial was condemned by the United Nations Security Council and nations around the world, leading to international sanctions against the South African government.
Arrested were: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, trade union and ANC member, Ahmed Kathrada (fondly called Kathy), Billy Nair, Denis Goldberg, a Cape Town engineer and leader of the Congress of Democrats. Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, architect and member of the Communist party, Bob Hepple, Arthur Goldreich, Harold Wolpe, prominent attorney and activist, James “Jimmy” Kantor, brother-in-law of Harold Wolpe and others.
Goldberg, Bernstein, Hepple, Wolpe and Goldreich were White Jews, Kathrada and Nair were Indian, and Sisulu, Mbeki, Motsoaledi and Mhlaba were Xhosa (Black), although Sisulu’s father was in fact a European magistrate named Victor Dickenson.
The author is a media, communication and knowledge management consultant