Supreme Court quashes corruption sentence against renowned activist Bireete

What you need to know:

  • Court said prosecution had failed to prove the embezzlement charges against Ms Bireete beyond reasonable doubt.

The Supreme Court has acquitted renowned civil society activist, Sarah Bireete of embezzlement charges that she has been battling for over the last ten years.
In its majority judgment of 4:1, the highest court in the land ruled that the Court of Appeal had wrongly confirmed her ten-year jail term earlier imposed on her by the Anti-Corruption Court.
The majority justices were: Eldad Mwangusya, Rubby Opio Aweri, Prof. Lillian Tibatemwa Ekirikubinza and Paul Mugamba.
They held that prosecution had failed to prove the embezzlement charges against Ms Bireete beyond reasonable doubt.

The charges against the activist, stemmed from the disappearance of about Shs130m while she worked with the Foreign Affairs ministry in 2009.
"Since we have already held that the prosecution did not prove the case against the appellant (Ms Bireete) beyond reasonable doubt. This appeal is allowed with the following orders; the conviction for embezzlement is quashed, sentence of 10 years as well as the order of refund of $70.160 is set aside," ruled the Justices.

The court also set aside the order of the lower courts, barring Ms Bireete from being employed in public service for the next ten years upon serving her jail term.
The corruption allegations against Ms Bireete, arose from her employment as the national coordinator for the International Conference of the Great Lakes region.
This was an autonomous project under the Foreign Affairs ministry.
Uganda was one of the member states participating in the organization and had to contribute to its operations.

Subsequently, in 2009, Uganda paid in excess of $114,160 as its member contribution.
So Ms Bireete as the national coordinator, through an email, requested for the refund of the said money contributed in excess.
The said email was sent as attachment in the form of a letter signed by the then permanent secretary, Amb James Mugume, instructing the Bujumbura secretary to deposit the funds on an account number in the names of Grate Lakes Youth League in Tropical Bank.

However, on April 22, 2009, the Foreign Affairs ministry received a letter claiming that the said refund was a grant to Uganda national coordination mechanism for payment of salaries and office administration.
Ms Bireete was then accused for having withdrawn part of the refund money from the said bank account by virtue of her position but left only $2,000 on the account.

It was also further alleged by the then permanent secretary that the letter which was attached to the email and sent by Ms Bireete requesting for the said refund, bore his forged signature.
She was eventually, arraigned before the Anti-Corruption Court and charged with abuse of office and embezzlement.

The Anti-Corruption Court found her guilty on both counts and sentenced her to five years and 10 years imprisonment respectively.
She was also ordered to refund $70.160 in addition to being barred from being employed in public service for the following 10 years.
However, being dissatisfied with the decision of the Anti-Corruption Court, she petitioned the Court of Appeal.

She partly succeeded with the appeal court quashing the conviction and sentence resulting from abuse of office charges.
However, the court upheld the embezzlement conviction as well as the orders of refund and further blocked her from holding a government office.
She then petitioned highest court in the land, which late last week faulted the Court of Appeal for upholding her conviction on embezzlement charges and yet she reportedly had no involvement in the disappeared money.

"The question which needs to be answered is if according to prosecution witness number 9 (Ms Miriam Kyomugasho, secretary to the Youth League of the Great Lakes region), the money was requested for and remitted to the ministry of Foreign Affairs, how did the appellant (Ms Bireete) who was not even a signatory to the account access it? This question was not resolved by the prosecution evidence. Interestingly, the Court of Appeal made a finding that the money disappeared in thin air which is not the same as saying that the appellant embezzled it," held the majority justices.
Adding:" In light of the above, we find that the evidence above falls short of proving beyond reasonable doubt that the ministry funds were ever in possession of the appellant (Ms Bireete). We therefore, hold that the Court of Appeal erred when they held that the prosecution had proved the offence of embezzlement beyond reasonable doubt."

Justice Esther Kisaajye was the only judge who dissented.
The majority justices upon reviewing the evidence of the lower courts, observed that the evidence of Ms Kyomugasho and prosecution number three who was the cashier, clearly showed that Ms Bireete played no role in withdrawal and disbursement of the money allegedly embezzled by her.
They further observed that the only role that Ms Bireete played was that she, through an email, forwarded the permanent secretary's letter to Bujumbura requesting for remission of the excess contribution which was done.

"What can be deduced from the testimonies above is that nowhere does it show that the appellant (Ms Bireete) took possession of the funds and converted them into her personal use. What was testified was that the money was handed to PW3 (The cashier) and nobody testified that PW3 then handed over the money to the appellant." The justices observed.
Ms Bireete's defence lawyer, Mr Jude Byamukama, lauded the majority decision, noting that his client had been wrongly convicted by lower courts in the face of glaring evidence supporting her defence.