How coronavirus crisis has stalled major criminal trials

Saturday March 28 2020

Charged. Mr Mathew Kanyamunyu (right) and his girlfriend Cynthia Munwangari (2nd right) arrive at the High Court’s Criminal Division in Kampala in 2017. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA

The Judiciary’s move to suspend some court sessions in light of the coronavirus pandemic could have gross effects on many criminal trials.

Chief Justice Bart Katureebe, on March 19, issued a communication halting all court hearings and appearances, save in exceptional circumstances.
However, the order came when some trials were at a critical stage or they were bound to takeoff.

International Crimes Division (ICD)
At the High Court’s International Crimes Division (ICD) based in Gulu Town, the trial of former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Thomas Kwoyelo had for the last two months progressed well, with the prosecution presenting more than 18 witnesses.

The trial was set to resume this week but in view of the Chief Justice’s directive, Justices Jane Kiggundu, Michael Elubu and Duncan Gaswaga, who have been presiding over the case, couldn’t proceed as they had envisaged.

Kwoyelo is accused of, among other offences, willful killing of innocent civilians, taking hostages, extensive destruction of property and causing serious bodily harm.

The case has been at the ICD since 2011, and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) fears that the more it drags on, the more difficult it becomes to prosecute.


“The ideal situation is for criminal matters to be heard as fast as possible because if you delay, evidence might be tampered with,” Ms Jacquelyn Okui, the DPP spokesperson, told this newspaper in a telephone interview early this week.

Ms Beatrice Stella Atingu, the ICD registrar, echoed a similar concern, explaining that although Justice Katureebe’s move was logical, the court’s progress will be rolled back since it is not clear if work will resume after the 32 day period as directed by the President on Friday last week.

“The progress we had made was tremendous. This is a case which has been here for years and some witnesses have since died. This pandemic struck at a wrong time. We don’t know when we shall resume.”

The ICD has on its table high profile cases, including that of Rwenzururu King Charles Wesley Mumbere, together with more than 100 others accused of murder, terrorism, robbery, and malicious damage of property.

Former Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) leader Jamil Mukulu, is also facing trial at the same court. Mukulu, together with 38 others, are facing charges related to terrorism, murder, attempted murder, aggravated robbery, aiding and abetting terrorism, crimes against humanity, and belonging to a terrorist organisation.

The other case under the same court is that where a group of people are accused of murdering former police spokesperson Felix Kaweesi, his bodyguard and driver in 2017.

“It is always hard to secure funds for court sessions,” Ms Atingu said, adding: “So some of these cases might resume next year.”

Criminal Division
At the High Court’s Criminal Division in Kampala, court has been grappling with the much-publicised case where Mr Mathew Kanyamunyu and his girlfriend Cynthia Munwangari are accused of murdering Kenneth Akena, a child rights activist, in 2016.

In February, after hearing from 13 prosecution witnesses, Justice Steven Mubiru, who had been co-opted from his Gulu jurisdiction to Kampala to hear the case, indefinitely suspended its hearing on grounds that the two months he had been given to deal with cases in Kampala had expired.

It is said the Judiciary has been weighing whether to get a new judge to hear the case all over again, or give Justice Mubiru another criminal session in Kampala to complete this rather complicated trial.

Mr Caleb Alaka, one of Mr Kanyamunyu’s lawyers, in telephone interview early this week claimed that they were under the impression that the trial would resume in April, which is out of question now.

“With the coronavirus pandemic, the trial is now going to take some time. The more time it takes, the more complicated it becomes to prosecute,” Mr Alaka said.

Mr Alaka said some witnesses had refused to testify and only agreed to after Justice Miburu ordered the media not to reveal their identities. It is now highly unlikely they will be willing to go through the process if the case is assigned to a new judge.

However, Ms Mary Kaitesi, the Criminal Division’s registrar, explained that by the time court sessions were suspended, the Judiciary had not yet agreed on when the Akena murder case would resume.

“It’s very difficult now to say when the case will be heard,” Ms Kaitesi said, dismissing Mr Alaka’s claim that the case was set to resume next month.
“I don’t know where the lawyers get the information from,” she added.

Court of appeal

Early this month, Mr Jameson Karemani, the Judiciary spokesperson, revealed how the Court of Appeal would open a criminal appeals session in Mbarara targeting to dispose of at least 40 cases mid this month.
However, in a telephone interview early this week, Deputy Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny- Dollo said such plans have been suspended.

“The sessions normally have many people and prisoners. So we couldn’t proceed in the face of this pandemic. We are now dealing with emergencies only,” he said.

In the same communication, the Court of Appeal had revealed plans to commence three separate civil appeals sessions in which they were targeting to clear at least 117 cases in a bid to reduce the 7,527 appeals gathering dust in its registry.

The court had listed seven out of the 14 Court of Appeal justices, to handle 39 of the civil appeals related to land claims, eight were in respect to loans, and seven were concerning breach of contract. Other cases which were to be handled include administration of estates, fraudulent sale of property, stay of execution and recovery of debts.

Justice Owiny- Dollo revealed that most of the cases were never heard due to the coronavirus crisis.