Rakai School fire: Students accused of arson file application to halt trial

Defence lawyer Sam Ssekyewa talks  to relatives of accused St. Bernard's SS students after court. PHOTO BY MALIK FAHAD JJINGO

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Appearing before Masaka High Court judge Justice Victoria Nakintu Katamba on Tuesday, Mr Sam Ssekyewa presented the application on behalf of the accused, seeking their acquittal due to gross violations of their fundamental rights by keeping them on remand for over five years without trial

Four individuals, including students from St. Bernard’s Secondary School, Maanya accused of setting fire to a school dormitory that resulted in the deaths of 10 students, have filed an application seeking to stay their trial, citing violations of their human rights.

Appearing before Masaka High Court judge Justice Victoria Nakintu Katamba on Tuesday, Mr Sam Ssekyewa presented the application on behalf of the accused, seeking their acquittal due to gross violations of their fundamental rights by keeping them on remand for over five years without trial.

Mr Ssekyewa argued that his clients' non-derogable rights and freedoms, as stipulated under the 1995 Constitution and other relevant laws, had been infringed upon by the state during the course of investigations, prosecution, and indictment.

He emphasized that his clients were juveniles at the time of their arrest, and the prolonged remand rendered the subsequent trial invalid.

“The proceedings in criminal case no. 277 of 2018 and in criminal case no. 157 of 2019 are tainted with multiple breaches of the applicants' fundamental non-derogable human rights and statutory guarantees. We request that the proceedings be declared null and discontinued, and the applicants be acquitted,” Mr Ssekyewa told the court.

Citing provisions of the Children’s Act, 2016, and the Human Rights and Enforcement Act, 2019, Mr Ssekyewa asked the court to stay the proceedings of the criminal case against his clients until the application he had filed was determined.

However, Mr Noah Kunya, the Masaka Resident Chief State Attorney, requested time to study the application before responding, as he had just received it. He asked the court to adjourn the matter.

The presiding judge agreed with the defense and stayed the proceedings of the case until the application is determined by the court.

“The court fixed the case intending to resume and conduct the trial within this month of July. However, an application filed pursuant to the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, the Children’s Act as amended, and the Human Rights Enforcement Act of 2019 raises questions of violations of fundamental rights and freedoms, which the court must first determine. Accordingly, the proceedings are hereby stayed until determination of the application,” she said.

Justice Nakintu further remanded the accused to Masaka Central Prison until July 16, when the hearing and determination of the application filed by the defense team will be handled.

The prosecution alleges that the accused, Henry Taremwa, 18, a resident of Mannya trading centre, Rakai; Alex Mugarura, 18, a resident of Kihinga Village, Kasaana Sub County, Sheema District; Dickson Kisuule, 18, a resident of Kifamba Sub County, Rakai District—all students at the same school—and Edison Niyo alias Edie, 22, a self-employed resident of Maanya trading centre, along with others still at large, killed Remigious Tamale and nine other students in a school fire on November 11, 2018, at St. Bernard’s SS, Maanya in Rakai District.

According to the amended charge sheet, the accused face 48 counts, including 10 counts of murder, 36 counts of attempted murder, 1 count of arson, and 1 count of attempted arson.