JINJA- After being held for more than two weeks, 141 Rwenzururu Kingdom loyalists were brought to court yesterday where the chief magistrate directed that an investigation be conducted into fears that they may have been tortured.
They looked unwashed, a very bad smell filled the courtroom as they filed in, with some looking to be in particularly bad physical shape.
“The torture claims raised by the defence should be investigated by the relevant State agencies,” Chief Magistrate John Francis Kaggwa ruled. “The accused persons should be accorded all their full constitutional rights”.
Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, they arrived under a cloud of suspicions that they could have been tortured or otherwise suffered other forms of illegal molestation while in detention.
Several of the suspects looked malnourished, frail and were in obvious pain. Some bore festering wounds on their limbs, which attracted flies.
One man’s palm appeared to have been split open. The severity of the wound drew the attention of other court litigants with some taking pictures of him.
“The place just smells too bad. Oh, oh, oh; it really stinks....” a female litigant said as she spat and quickly left court half way through the proceedings.
Defence lawyers Caleb Alaka, Samuel Muyizi, Aaron Kizza demanded to know the whereabouts of the rest of their clients (about 10 in number) who were not paraded in court.
“Maybe these people are dead or alive; we don’t know. There were several people who died in the hands of the police. All these people were tortured and some have gunshot wounds,” Mr Alaka submitted to court
“Our prayer is that medical reports be produced for those people they claim to be in hospitals and a copy of the police bond be availed as proof for one they claim was released on police bond.”
According to the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act, 2012, torture is defined as the commission of any act or omission by which severe pain, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining information or confession.
Prosecution led by Alex Micheal Ojoku maintained that the missing 10 were receiving treatment in hospitals that he did not reveal and that one suspect had been released on police bond.
The State also denied the torture claims, attributing the wounds, which were visible on several suspects to the gunshots and other injuries they could have sustained during the raid on the palace.
Chief Magistrate Kaggwa looking at the condition in which some of the suspects were, however, concurred with the concerns of the defence lawyers and ordered an investigation into the torture claims.
Mr Kaggwa also urged the prison authorities to respect the constitutional rights of the suspects, including the right to medical treatment.
The torture claims come days after it was revealed that one of the loyalists, Bosco Mbusa Bwambale, had died in police cells.
Two weeks ago, the accused persons had been driven while completely naked from Kasese, hundreds of kilometres away, to Nalufenya Police Station in Jinja, arriving in the chilly morning by 7:30 am.
They had been arrested in the aftermath of the bloody army and police attack on the Rwenzururu palace, which left 116 people dead. An unknown number of children have since been reported missing also.
From Nalufenya, they were split into groups and relocated to unnamed locations by State security.
Journalists and other litigants were forced out of court by both the huge number of suspects and the stench, which filled the room.
After the seating arrangement was sorted out with some suspects finding space on the bare floor, the reading of the charges commenced in their language, Lukonzo. The king was among them.
The suspects listened attentively as the charges of treason, murder, aggravated robbery and terrorism were read out. If found guilty, they face a maximum sentence of death by hanging.
After rigorous hours of reading out the charges to the king and his loyalists, the suspects brightened up when they were given soda and biscuits.
Suddenly, every suspect became busy with munching biscuits and the noise associated with the opening polyethene bags disrupted the proceedings until court had to be called to order.
Later, King Mumbere and the defence lawyers privately met the loyalists. They were seen intermittently clapping as their king spoke. Journalists were asked not to cover this meeting.
Counsel Alaka is, however, reported to have advised his clients against receiving strangers as visitors in prison who may ask them to plead guilty in exchange for favours. He also assured his clients of a calmer prison environment awaiting them compared to the torturous conditions of police cells.
Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Ms Winnie Kiiza, together with the Rwenzururu queen, Agnes Nyabaghole Ithungu, were in court to show solidarity.
The charges come at a time when some Opposition politicians and MPs from Kasese have called for an international inquiry into the November 27 raid, citing excessive force used by the military and police.
Ms Kiiza has urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to consider commencing investigations into the Kasese clashes. She recently held a closed-door meeting with ICC registrar, Mr Herman Von Hebel, who had visited the country last week.
About two years ago, the Constitutional Court ruled that errant police officers can and should be sued for torture in their individual capacities even, when on official duty unlike before when they were protected for accounting for their alleged since the legal position then said litigants could only sue the Attorney General.
The Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act 2012 states that a person who performs any act of torture commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for 15 years or to a fine of 350 currency points (each currency point is equivalent to Shs20,000).