How refugees as well as other suspects get stuck on remand in Uganda’s prisons
As in many similar jurisdictions, and in line with internationally ratified instruments,1 Chapter 4 of Uganda’s 1995 Constitution provides clear protections for the rights of pre-trial detainees. Firstly, it is the duty of the State to bring the suspect to justice without delay and to produce the suspect before a competent court within 48 hours.2 Secondly, Article 28 (3) (a) of Uganda’s 1995 Constitution provides for presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a competent court. Thirdly, Article 28 (1) provides an accused person the right to a fair and speedy trial. This is echoed in Article 126 (2) (b) which provides that justice shall not be delayed, though it is silent on what amounts to a ‘speedy trial’.
When I first started working at Refugee Law Project, an outreach project of the School of Law Makerere University, I perhaps naively assumed that these protections were not just present in law but also effective in practice. However, after more than a year as a legal assistant, working in support of RLP’s mission “to empower asylum seekers, refugees, deportees, IDPs and their host communities to enjoy their human rights and lead dignified lives”, I am no longer so sure. From what I have seen in the course of working with highly vulnerable and indigent refugees, these protections are not guaranteed, despite the best efforts of police, prisons and judiciary.
RLP routinely visits gazetted detention facilities in and around districts where we have presence, in order to identify both refugees and their hosts in need of legal aid/representation. What we find in many facilities is that more than half of the inmates are on remand. Refugees as well as their hosts are often detained beyond the 48-hour limit, their cases drag on for unduly long periods of time, and throughout the process the presumption of innocence seems to have fallen into abeyance.
The right to apply for bail under Article 23(6) (a) of the 1995 Constitution is premised on the presumption of innocence. The majority of detained persons, not least refugees, are vulnerable financially and psychologically, such that navigating through the legal system for most remains a daunting and confusing task. They often face particular challenges meeting bail requirements provided for under the Constitution, such as ready cash, a permanent place of abode, and substantial sureties. The lack of these requirements presents technical obstacles to possible enjoyment of the right to apply for bail. Furthermore, the actual grant of bail is dependent on the discretion of the judicial officer, some of whom show an inadequate appreciation of refugee dynamics, and this can easily be another factor that results in limited realization of a refugee’s right to apply for bail.