Sydney Asubo: Out to catch the corrupt
Posted Saturday, March 23 2013 at 02:00
It is a story that for Asubo, has brought the satisfaction of winning cases and the frustration at watching what he thought were good cases, slip right through his fingers into the crashing jaws of defeat.
In the dock were the three ministers, Sam Kutesa, John Nasasira and Mwesigwa Rukutana. They stood by the wall, seemingly disturbed, pulling out hankies every so often to sneeze and wipe off sweat as they answered to cases of causing the government a loss of Shs14 billion during the 2007 Chogm.
A witness was undergoing cross-examination by the defence lawyers, and suddenly, things seemed to go wrong for the prosecution. The witness uttered something that seemed to contradict what the prosecution team expected them to say. And within minutes, the head of the prosecution team, Sydney Asubo, was asking for the court to declare the witness a “hostile witness.”
From that moment, on, it seemed, the case had been settled. In a few weeks, the court had dismissed the case against the ministers, going as far as blaming the prosecution for doing shoddy investigations.
It was yet another big loss in a corruption case for the State prosecution, and for Asubo personally. But it was also, just another page in a long story that Asubo says has become a vocation, a calling to which he has committed his life-long career – “working to catch the bad guys.”
Asubo is the director of legal affairs at the Inspectorate of Government (IGG), and works as the ombudsman’s leading chief anti-corruption prosecutor.
You have seen him dressed in draping over-flowing dark robes on TV in recent cases against such high profile figures as Capt. Mike Mukula, Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, the three ministers named above, and others.
It is a story that for Asubo, has brought the satisfaction of winning cases and the frustration at watching what he thought were good cases, slip right through his fingers into the crashing jaws of defeat. His is a life that is passionate about law practice, not only for the glamour and appeal that comes along with it, but also turning it into a channel of helping society fight crime.
Dream to practice law
Unlike many who dream of growing into professions that they cannot even achieve, Asubo had pretty much made up his mind, earlier on in primary school that he wanted to be a lawyer. And from then on, there was no stopping him.
“The first thing that drew me to the profession was how smart the lawyers dressed and how different they looked from everybody,” he says. “When I asked my mum why so and so dresses the way they do, she told me that those are lawyers and if you want to be like them, you need to study very hard.”
“It was a professional path that I was targeting right through secondary school,” he says. “I hardly concentrated on the sciences.
I studied them for the purpose of getting a good grade, not because I felt they were so important in my career development. That is something that I think Uneb needs to look at… to see if they can identify people’s career choices early enough and find a way of allowing them to concentrate on those paths without ignoring that they need other basics.”
Mr Asubo has spent nearly his entire career in working with state-led prosecutions. He worked as a state attorney in the Directorate of Public Prosecution’s office from 2001 to 2007, and has since then worked with the ombudsman.
“Most of the time I was up-country,” he says. He worked in Mbale, Entebbe, Gulu and Kampala. “It was very challenging,” he says of his experience as a State attorney. “There are so many criminal cases, the crime rates are always high. The most difficult time I had was in Gulu. I had a very nasty experience. I made some decisions that the army leadership in Gulu did not like. They came and abducted me, picked me from my office, took me to the army barracks, and detained me.
“The manner of arrest was so violent. I was hit on the head, they broke my glasses, threw me on the back of the pickup truck; it was very terrifying,” he says.
Asubo had ordered for the release of a suspect for lack of evidence, something which irked the soldiers, who had spent a lot of time tracking down the man they suspected of being a rebel collaborator. Asubo was, however, later released, and sued and was compensated by government.
The lawyer resigned from his job as a state attorney in March 2007 to attend to domestic issues. He says it was during this time that a moment of soul searching drew him back to his life’s vocation. And when the opening at the IGG’s office emerged, he took it up with both hands, remembering that he had all along wanted “to fight the bad guys.”
Fighting bad guys
It is here that he has pitched his camp and mounted his stand in his fight against the corrupt. And as seen in the case against the ministers, it is not a walk in the park. Asubo says the conviction rates at the Anti-Corruption Court are high, (100 per cent in 2009/2010, 93 per cent in 2011 and 70 per cent in 2012). But, that it’s the cases against the big fish, the high profile politicians where it’s been harder.
“Our biggest problem has been that the witnesses are compromised,” he says. “Some die. Sometimes you may have a good case but you cannot access certain documents because the thieves have destroyed them. You may know that a crime has been committed but then proving that money was taken by a certain individual becomes a problem. It is always frustrating, especially when witnesses let you down in court.”
Asubo also highlights cases of witnesses fearing the accused persons, who in this case are cabinet ministers. “In that particular case (against the ministers), I had spent lots of time with the witness here,” he says. “I showed him the statement; we went through it. If he had said in court what he was supposed to say, the truth, I think the story would have been different. But he refused. And when a witness refuses to talk, there’s nothing you can do. These are not kids you will get a stick, you cane, and they talk.”
This contributes hugely to that part of the law that makes Asubo sad. “There are many times when you hate the law,” he says. ‘There are sometimes when the severity of the penalty is not sufficient to the crimes. There are for example road traffic cases where someone kills another, but the fines are so laughable. There are times when you see a criminal walking scot-free because either the investigations are bungled up and you know for sure that this is someone who is going to commit another crime.”