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Uganda Lawyers Group, Government, Challenge Treason Trial Ruling


An Uganda Constitutional Court ruling that bars the military from trying opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye on terrorism charges is being challenged by the government. The Uganda Law Society has also registered objection to part of the decision.

Kizza Besigye and 22 others faced terrorism and firearms charges in military court in addition to treason charges in Uganda's civilian High Court.

Tuesday, the Constitutional Court upheld the Uganda Law Society's petition that it is unconstitutional to hold trials in two courts based on the same facts. Therefore, Besigye and the others will now only face treason charges in High Court.

Ugandan army spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye told VOA Wednesday that the government is challenging the ruling.

"Does it mean that any human being will go and purchase a missile and store it in his house? That is what that court ruling would mean," he said. "In the interest of public order the attorney general must appeal against this and he has already filed in a notice of appeal. If the ruling of the Constitutional Court yesterday is sustained, it would imply that terrorism suspects in future will only be tried in the civilian courts, not in a court martial."

In an earlier interview, Major Kulayigye told VOA the charges lodged against the presidential candidate are sufficiently different to merit trials in two separate courts, and that civilians can face a court martial if they are charged with terrorism or illegal possession of firearms.

While the Uganda Law Society is pleased that Besigye and the others will not have to face a court martial, the body is also challenging the Constitutional Court's ruling because of a provision that says military court is equal to High Court.

This overturns a 2003 ruling that military court is subordinate to the High Court.

Defense lawyer Sam Njuba tells VOA the High Court should act as a check-and-balance against military court.

"High Court can give an order to that court. But if they are on the same level, then you cannot. And much worse than that, you can be taken to either court," he said.

About two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch released a report concerning Besigye's military trial.

The spokesman for Human Rights Watch's Brussels office, Lance Lattig, told VOA that, under international human rights law, military courts can only hear the cases of military personnel for military offenses.

"In general, civilian courts offer broader protections for defendants than military tribunals would, because military tribunals have exceptional rules dealing with the conduct of military personnel in an armed conflict, for example," he said. "There is no reason why these defendants should be tried under a military tribunal."

Among the charges against Besigye and his supporters is for supporting a rebel group to overthrow the government.

Presidential candidate Besigye is leader of the Forum for Democratic Change party. He returned to Uganda last October after more than four years in exile, only to be arrested the following month and charged with rape and treason in High Court and terrorism and illegal possession of firearms in a military court. He was jailed and then released at the beginning of January.

It is widely believed that the various charges are politically motivated, designed to prevent Besigye from campaigning fully and to ruin his reputation.