The Judicial Service Commission two weeks ago set aside a case in which a lawyer accuses a judge of the High Court of corruption and witch-hunt.
In February 2016, the lawyer, Mr Frank Kanduho, who was at the time a councillor representing Uganda Law Society (ULS) at the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), filed an election-related matter at the High Court’s Civil Division in Kampala.
Although Mr Kanduho’s motive in the suit was to halt the Electoral Commission (EC) from organising the election for the ULS councillor, insisting that his term was yet to expire, the case ended up inadvertently unveiling one of the biggest scandals in the Judiciary’s history, prompting Chief Justice Bart Katureebe and Justice Yorokamu Bamwine, then Principal Judge, to act.
With the electoral case filed as per tradition, it was allocated by registrar Alex Ajiji, then the Civil Division’s registrar, to Justice Lydia Mugambe. The judge couldn’t handle the matter since she had to fly to the United States on a maternity trip.
Coincidentally, at the time, the Justice Joseph Murangira had been dispatched by the Principal Judge to the Civil Division to handle a number of electoral petitions.
Justice Murangira’s station at the time was the High Court’s Criminal Division.
In a twist of events, court records show that Mr Kanduho’s electoral case ended up at Justice Murangira’s desk. Mr Kanduho resolved to do something about it.
In November 2016, he wrote to Justice Murangira’s supervisor, Justice Bamwine, stating that Justice Murangira had a score to settle with him.
Mr Kanduho, sticking to his trademark style of not holding back, told Justice Bamwine, who has since retired, how the bad blood between him and Justice Murangira had been birthed about 10 years prior.
In 2006, Mr Kanduho said, Justice Murangira was in charge of the now infamous case file number 102 of 2005, in which Mr Moses Byensi and eight others were accused of committing murder. The crime had allegedly been committed in Mubende District, but it was heard at the now-disbanded Nakawa High Court, which had jurisdiction over the district. As fate would have it, Mr Kanduho, at the time working with Mwesigwa Rukutana and Company Advocates, was one of the defence lawyers. In his letter to Justice Bamwine, Mr Kanduho alleged that Justice Murangira approached him demanding for a bribe of Shs9m from the accused if he was ever going to free them.
The money allegedly never came, Mr Kanduho alleged, and in 2008, Justice Murangira didn’t only find all the nine guilty of murder, but also handed them the ultimate punishment: they were to be hanged.
Although the nine convicts wanted to appeal Justice Murangira’s decision, Mr Kanduho said in the letter that they couldn’t locate the file. According to court records, when Mr Kanduho failed to trace the file, the convicts concluded that he wasn’t competent. They dumped him and gave instructions to Kabega, Tumusiime and Company Advocates, whose efforts to retrieve the file also yielded no results.
“For my perceived failing of this deal,” Mr Kanduho wrote to Justice Bamwine, “I have lived to pay dearly for it. All the years of my practice, I have had countless taunting whenever I have appeared before my Lord Murangira. This is something I can’t endure anymore.”
Once Justice Bamwine received Mr Kanduho’s complaint, sources within the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), which has been handling the case, have told Saturday Monitor, the murder case file reappeared out of the blue at the Nakawa High Court registry, much to the shock of the Judiciary officials.
Although the file had re-emerged, Justice Bamwine, in the letter to Justice Katureebe dated November 28, 2016, insisted that there was need to investigate the issue because it dented what he termed as the Judiciary’s “trustworthiness.”
The Chief Justice had given Justice Bamwine green light to send the issue to the JSC for investigation.
“There are two aspects to this file, first is the issue of the disappearance of the court file and the fate of the convicted individuals who wish to appeal the High Court decision. You should inform the Court of Appeal that the file appears to be irretrievably lost so that the court may take appropriate decision...” Chief Justice Katureebe’s letter reads in part.
He continued: “...It is my considered view that these are serious allegations that deserve further inquiry. You should, therefore, send the matter to the JSC for necessary investigation and action.”
In the charge sheet at the JSC, the first charge Justice Murangira faced was misbehaviour owing to two allegations: seeking a bribe of Shs9 million from Mr Kanduho, and causing disappearance of a court file. The second charge was misconduct and the specifics were that he purportedly harassed Mr Kanduho whenever they met in various courtrooms.
Sources within JSC disclosed that once they received the complaint from Justice Bamwine, they called both Justice Murangira, in this case being the accused, and the complainant, Mr Kanduho.
“Mr Kanduho insisted that he meant everything he had penned to the Principal Judge,” sources told this reporter on condition of anonymity, “Justice Murangira, on his part, denied everything.”
Since Justice Murangira had vehemently denied the accusations, JSC sources say Mr Kanduho needed to produce witnesses in order for the commission to establish a prima facie case such that they could recommend to the President to form a tribunal to further investigate Justice Murangira.
“The fact that on two occasions Mr Kanduho failed, ignored or neglected to come to the commission for the case with his witnesses when duly served with the summons, would indicate he may have lost interest in the case,” a source within the commission, which is privy to the case but not allowed to speak to the press, said.
Mr Kanduho, in telephone interview with this reporter, accused the JSC of shifting the burden of investigating to him yet that is its constitutional load.
“I did all I could. I listed witnesses such as senior counsel Barnabas Tumusingize, Alfred Okello Oryem, and Bob Kasango, who were present when Justice Murangira was calling me a Munyarwanda,” the lawyer said, further asking if the commission has ever summoned those witnesses.
The decision by the commission not to summon clerks who were handling the murder case file at Nakawa High Court also left Mr Kanduho bewildered.
“I don’t have powers to summon such people. But JSC has investigators to do all that work. Why they never called the clerks to tell us why the file disappeared and years later resurfaced, is amazing,” he said.
Justice Murangira, in a phone interview with this reporter, welcomed the closing of the file, saying it’s indicative of his earlier view that the accusations were nothing but a mere witch-hunt aimed at upending his career.
“[Mr] Kanduho and his group wanted to sabotage my promotion. I have been in the Judiciary for more than 30 years and I had applied to the Supreme Court. They wanted to stop that,” Justice Murangira said.
Asked about the fate of the case, Justice Benjamin Kabiito, the chairperson of the JSC, said: “The file for now has been closed. It hasn’t been dismissed. If Mr Kanduho comes up with evidence, we can reopen it.”
As the fallout continues, what should not be forgotten is that the nine individuals who Justice Murangira had convicted of murder and sentenced to death were eventually set free because their right to appeal had been violated.
Removing a judicial officer. Article 144 of the Constitution, which stipulates how a judge is appointed and removed from office, states that the President removes a judicial officer if the question of his or her removal has been referred to a tribunal.
The tribunal, which is also appointed by the President, must first recommend to him that the said judicial officer ought to be removed from office on any grounds such as misbehaviour, misconduct and incompetence. Before all that, the Constitution says it’s the JSC that should prompt the President that the judicial officer should be investigated.