KAMPALA- When State House Comptroller Lucy Mbonye Nakyobe told Parliament on October 30 that six presidential guards accused of stealing about Shs700 million from the President’s Office had been convicted, it was the truth, but not the whole truth.
It is true the soldiers of the Special Forces Command, had been tried and convicted by the Unit Disciplinary Court at Kasenyi in Entebbe shortly after their arrest.
The Unit Disciplinary Court was chaired by Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
However, by the time Ms Mbonye testified before the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, the story had changed.
The accused soldiers had been put on fresh trial and released on bail by another military court. They are; Mr Mark Betunga, Moses Muhangi, Gideon Tumuhimbise, Daniel Okello and two others. They are accused of stealing the money from the State House safe at Okello House in Nakasero in 2011.
Sunday Monitor has learnt that the accused soldiers had challenged their trial and conviction by the Unit Disciplinary Court in the higher court, the General Court Martial. They contended that they had been convicted without being allowed to defend themselves and that the trial court had no jurisdiction to try them.
The court martial upheld their appeal. It ruled that the Unit Disciplinary Court had no jurisdiction to try a case of such magnitude and that it had irregularly convicted the accused without a fair hearing.
The General Court Martial referred the case to the Division Court Martial at Bombo for a retrial and the suspects were released on bail.
Apparently, the disciplinary court had convicted the soldiers before they arrived for trial. Upon arrival in the court at Kasenyi, they found a judgment had already been made and it was just read out to them.
Their defence lawyer, Capt Nasser Drago, who partially represented the accused in the appeal case, confirmed the retrial. “The appeal was heard, the accused won and the case was recalled for trial,” Capt Drago said.
The accused are still undergoing the retrial at the Division Court Martial at Bombo.
“The Division Court Martial in Bombo is still handling the case. It only failed to sit this week because the chairperson was away on special duties.” Maj Robert Ngabirano told this newspaper.
Plan and execution of the theft
In September 2011, a lot of money was withdrawn from Tropical Bank and taken to State House at Okello House in Nakasero. Sacks of cash were poured into a room that was guarded by four soldiers, with two other military guards manning the entrance.
At around that time, the guards started receiving daily allowances of Shs20,000.
A source close to State House told Sunday Monitor that top government and NRM officials and some ministers’ wives would frequently come to Okello House, load some sacks of cash onto their cars and drive away.
As more people frequently flocked to pick the cash bags, the guards’ daily allowance was increased to Shs50,000 for half day.
“There was a very strong smell of money at Okello House and with the high allowance, the guards got curious. One guard called Dan decided to peep through the ventilators. He saw sacks of money on the floor heaped up to near the ceiling,” a source said.
Struck by what he saw inside, the guard alerted his colleagues. The guards then made contact with an artisan in Kisenyi suburb to make for them a duplicate key to the cash room.
The artisan came to Okello House, examined the locks and went back to make the key. On the day the money was stolen, the guards called the expert key cutter. He arrived at 10pm, opened the door to the cash room and they entered and started helping themselves with the cash bags.
They opened the first sack which contained Pounds and they ignored it.
“We saw the notes had a face of a woman and we decided it would land us into problems so we decided to look for our own notes. We turned more sacks before falling on dollars but also we did not take,” one of the guards, is quoted to have told a source.
After turning over the sacks, they saw sacks of Shs20,000 and Shs50,000 notes. Each of them picked a number of sacks they could carry before inviting the two other guards at the entrance to come and also help themselves get rich.
As excitement grew, the key cutter was reportedly heard asking how much he should take. The guards told him to carry what he could.
They all left behind their guns and army uniforms at the scene and the main gate. They walked away for a short distance and hired motorcycles. They escaped in different directions.
One guard picked a boda boda and went to a guest house in Ntinda. When he reached, in a hurry and without small currency denominations, he removed a bundle of Shs20,000 notes to pay the cyclist. The cyclists became suspicious and reported to police.
Police came to arrest the guard but he paid them off with a bag of cash. They left but warned him to leave the place immediately.
The case was reported the next day after the guards’ uniforms and guns were found abandoned at Okello House and the cash room open.
The Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence is said to have started investigations immediately while the Joint Anti-Terrorism Team was also investigating it.
The suspects, who had already left Kampala, were all tracked down through their mobile phones and arrested.
Though information before Parliament shows that in September 2011, 10 suspects, including Gideon Tumuhimbise were arrested from Rukungiri District by a joint security team comprising the police and the Special Forces Command operatives, Sunday Monitor has learnt that only six soldiers were taken for trial.
While PAC was told that only Shs63 million was recovered, Sunday Monitor sources claim that two bags containing about Shs150 million were recovered from one of the suspects only identified as Kimuli.
While in detention at the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task force (JATT) and as investigations were still going on, the Unit Disciplinary Court at Kasenyi Barracks chaired by Brig Muhoozi, called for the case files, saying JATT and CMI were wasting time.
The six were presented at Kasenyi barracks, where they found the chairman of the court waiting for them with the judgement of their case.
They were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail at Luzira prison.
Appealing against the conviction
While in Luzira, the suspects sought advice from fellow inmates who advised them to seek legal redress. They contacted former president of the Uganda Law Society, Mr Bruce Kyerere.
Within a month, they appealed to the General Court Martial, which overturned the decision of the Unit Disciplinary Court and ordered a retrial.
The Auditor General’s 2012 report to Parliament shows that the State House money was stolen by serving military officers and that although during the year, Shs590 million was reportedly stolen from the cash office, no police report was availed at audit time to confirm the claimed amount, and information about the theft was scanty.