I will be guided by law and evidence, not politics – Abodo

Sunday May 3 2020

Justice Abodo assu

Justice Abodo assumes office as DPP. PHOTO BY ALEX ESAGALA 

By Derrick Kiyonga

How do you feel about being Uganda’s first female DPP?
I feel a lot of responsibility weighing on me. Of course, I feel happy about that and I want to thank the President for having the confidence in me and appointing me as DPP. I want to thank him for giving women the confidence that we can also be in such a position. We have never had a female DPP. Though I’m happy, I feel a lot of burden on my shoulders.
I have to do a good job first and foremost and it’s from my legacy that I will open possibilities for women, and people will say “let’s have another female DPP,” or say “women can’t manage this job, let’s go back to the men.” And also, I’m happy because it’s a celebration for women and for prosecutors. Being a career prosecutor… you know; being a female prosecutor, I feel I’m back home and we should be able to do our things as prosecutors. So we should be able to deliver as career prosecutors.

Tell us how you got this job. Did you apply?
You don’t even apply. I was so happy doing my work as a judge. I have been on the bench for two years and the Constitution says the President appoints with the recommendation of the Public Service [Commission] and Parliament. So what happened was that the President appointed me. I don’t know the process of appointment, but was appointed by the President and then I went for interviews with Public Service and I went to Parliament.

The Constitution says the DPP’s office is independent. But when you look at how the DPP is selected, your predecessors have been accused of being stooges of the President, that they decided depending on what the President wanted. How are you going to handle this accusation?
First of all, I don’t believe that accusation. I’m happy that you are putting it as an accusation. Where is the evidence to show that it’s the President that runs the ODPP (Office of the DPP)? Because basically that’s what your question means, that just because it’s the President who appoints, so he runs this office. I don’t think so because I was in the ODPP for 19 years and for nine of those 19 years I was at the Anti-Corruption Court. And not even once did I get any political interference in the cases that I handled. So I think people just guess.
We should have this in mind: The President appoints you, but the Constitution is very clear that your office is independent. That you are independent in the decision you take. You are not under either any authority, or a person. So independence is guaranteed by the Constitution. And it plays out in every task that you carry out every day. You find that if there is a file involving politicians and I must charge one if there is evidence, I will definitely as a prosecutor. It will not be because it’s political, for me as a prosecutor, I look at the law and the evidence.

In 2016, Dr Kizza Besigye was charged with treason, but to date he has never been committed to the High Court for trial. Yet in your explanation, you have told me you first evaluate the evidence on record before sanctioning a charge. So what do you make of that?
What I can say is that when the file comes for perusal, it’s not that all the evidence must be there. There must be half of the evidence for you to decide that this person must be charged. If we say we should wait for all evidence then we would never take anyone to court because investigations take long, first of all.
But we should be able to gauge in a particular case that as per witnesses who have recorded statements, as per documents that have been recovered, there is some sort of evidence which can enable me charge someone and then the process rolls out. The person can get bail, inquiries continue. Sometimes along the way so many things happen.

One, you can find out that maybe the police don’t have the other evidence, or the police can get all the evidence, but as you are preparing your case for court, the witnesses let you down. So many things happen that sometimes we as prosecutors don’t have control over. Because when the file comes to you actually see there is some kind of charge disclosed and you advise police can you charge with this particular offence and let this person appear in court as you continue with inquiries A, B, C, D.

Let’s go to the current situation. We are in the Covid-19 era. The President recently said if a politician is found distributing food to the public, he or she should be charged with attempted murder. You being a career prosecutor and having served as a judge, would you sanction such charges? Can those charges stand, putting into context the ingredients of attempted murder?
I want to get the context in which the President made that. I want to put everything into context. I know where the President is coming from. This is a President of the country. There is Covid-19. There is no vaccine.

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There is no medication for it. The only treatment or medication is in our hands, by social distancing and washing our hands. All those things we are currently doing. In Europe and America, people are dying; 700 people per day, 800 people per day. That’s scary. And this is Uganda, we don’t have the capacity to handle if we get to that level of the outbreak.

What the President is saying is social distance. Don’t come together. And you are going to deliver food. Of course, people are really badly off, people are going to come and scramble for the food and maybe one or two people have Covid-19. You know how this Covid-19 is transmitted. The President was coming from that, put it into context. He is really stressing the fact that stay at home, keep the social distance. If you want to give food, there is a taskforce. Let the taskforce do that.

In a nutshell, you don’t think the President was serious about charging people with attempted murder for giving out food? He is just trying to scare off people?
I think I have answered that. I would get into politics which I don’t want to.

Because people think the President is telling you how to do your work
No. He is not.

Let’s talk about torture. Recently, MP Francis Zaake was brought to court in very bad shape. The Judiciary has insisted suspects who have been tortured shouldn’t be arraigned in court. What’s you take on this issue?
The law is clear on that, really. Even human rights generally. First of all, why torture people? What’s the basis of torturing someone? Even if you want a charge and caution statement, what would be the basis of torturing someone? There is no basis at all. Our law is very clear: someone is considered innocent until proven guilty. Even us as prosecutors, we are ministers of justice. We don’t condone that at all. For us, we take people as suspects to court until some is proven guilty. So there is no basis for torture.

So would you tell your officers at the lowest level not to get involved in proceedings in which an accused has been tortured?
No. But we don’t get to know that [torture]. We don’t interact with an accused person. You see? For us we are for the State, we interact with victims of crime.

Most times you actually get to see an accused person for the first time in court. So the prosecution can’t say anything. We just direct police on investigations, so we wouldn’t know if someone is tortured.

Actually, the first person to know is the defence lawyer because they are in touch with their clients. And normally if they bring it to the attention of court it’s investigated. Even us prosecutors sometimes don’t tender in charge and caution statements because they are got as a result of torture.

In 2017, you were a prosecutor when prosecutors laid down their tools over pay. Currently, prosecutors from the DPP’s office have a court case against the government over failure to fulfil its promises. Do you support the court action?
It’s not backing or not backing. The issue with the prosecutors is basically low pay. We thank the President that recently there was an increase of salary of prosecutors. I think the lowest prosecutor gets Shs1.7m before tax. But once you deduct the PAYE [tax], then again it takes you back. But for us we are looking at the package. We are looking at low pay. We are looking at retooling. We don’t have the tools to do our work. Most of us are operating in rented premises.

We should have our own home where we operate from. You see the DPP’s offices where we operate from? So that you are not there stressed with rent, and you can’t do any kind of development on the structure because it’s basically rented. So it’s really a whole package. We need training, yet every year there are cuts on our budget allocations. Some of the items are not funded at all, yet for us as ODPP we feel those are the items that should be funded.

Which are those key priority areas….
Priority number one for us is implementation of our ODDP structure through recruitment, because the staffing is so low. We have 40 per cent of what we need. We are very thin on the ground. That one is underfunded. We have priority number two, prosecution of serious and complex offences so that we can reduce case backlog. We want to equip the departments of money laundering and asset recovery, but no funds were given at all. Asset recovery is very key in the criminal justice system. We have a funding gap in supervising key DPP offices. There is Shs0.760 billion funding gap. We have six priority areas, but there’s either underfunding or no funding at all.

Crime keeps on morphing and it’s getting sophisticated. Your officers must up their game if they are to catch up with crime, and also the nifty defence lawyers
That’s my key priority area as well. Re-skilling. I’m saying we are 21st Century prosecutors. We are operating in a very connected world. Crime is being committed by the use of technology. So that’s where my priority is, I need reskilling of my prosecutors.

That’s why I’m pushing for a prosecutors’ academy so that we can have tailored courses, tailored training. Because crime is so dynamic that we need to be up to skill. There is cyber-crime which is now going up. There is corruption. Criminals are always two steps ahead of us. We are always doing the catching up. So we need training and we just need to be consistent. Because the law changes every day as crime changes. We need to be upskilled such that we are ahead of the game, otherwise the criminals will overrun us.

The Constitution gives the DPP powers to take over privately instituted criminal charges. But in the recent past, the DPP has come under scrutiny because he kept on dropping charges after taking over. Are you going to do things differently?
If I take over and I find out that there is no evidence, I will definitely drop it. Because to tell the truth, Article 120 gives powers to the DPP to control criminal prosecutions. What does it mean to control it? It means to manage it as well such that people don’t abuse that. If I take over the prosecution and I find that there was no basis whatsoever, I will discontinue definitely.

But if I take over and I find that there is a basis to do further investigation, I will definitely direct police to do further investigations and we come to a final conclusion. I can’t have a case in the system which has no basis for charging.

We are alive to the fact that you have control over criminal proceedings. But there is an issue of public trust. There are instances when a prosecutor asks the court to commit to the High Court on grounds that they have sufficient evidence to pin, but once that case starts the DPP withdraws charges. Or the DPP can parade a witness in court pining an individual, but later mysteriously withdraws the charges. This leads to conspiracy theories and the public to lose faith in the system…
I know what you are saying. But one thing is we don’t control how the case goes forward. Once the case goes to court, the prosecutor doesn’t have control whatsoever in terms of what witnesses are going to say. I can have control of the case, but I can’t control what the witness is going to say. If this witness is going to stand there and start saying “I didn’t mean what I said at police,” or “I didn’t say that, I don’t know where police got that from.” Can you control that as a prosecutor? No, you can’t.
All you can do is have your case, you read, because we just go by statements on the file. If they disclose an offence, and if I feel I have a case, I put it to court and it goes in the system. When we reach there, witnesses sometimes become hostile, or they don’t come at all and the case colipases.

Do you want the DPP to keep that file in the system were some of the witnesses write that “we are no longer interested in the case and we are not coming to testify?” You can’t have such a case, otherwise you clog the system.

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