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Ugandan Lawyers Begin Strike To Protest Storming of High Court

Lawyers in Uganda Monday began a three-day strike to protest what they say is government interference in the judiciary. The strike follows similar action taken by judges last week to condemn the recent storming of the high court by security agents. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

The strike is meant to call attention to the events of March 1, when security agents forced their way into the High Court's Criminal Registry and re-arrested six men suspected of belonging to a rebel group.

The six suspects had been granted bail and were waiting to be released when the incident occurred. Police assaulted and injured one of the defense lawyers in the process.

The judges then went on strike and closed courts countrywide March 5th, sparking violent clashes in the capital in which a baby was killed by tear gas.

The president of the Uganda Law Society, Moses Adriko, tells VOA that he and his colleagues want to reinforce the message of the judges' strike. "This was an invasion of the court in violation of clear court orders granting different suspects bail. Therefore, once again, we are to come out very strongly indeed, not only to condemn but to stay away from the court so that the government understands how outraged we in the legal community are," he said.

The six have been accused of belonging to a rebel group called the People's Redemption Army and face terrorism, treason, and other charges.

They are supporters of Dr. Kizza Besigye, who is leader of the Forum for Democratic Change party.

Besigye returned to Uganda in 2005 from exile to run as a presidential candidate in the country's 2006 elections. But shortly after his return, he was accused of trying to overthrow the government through the rebel group and was also accused of raping a close family friend.

During the campaign period toward the end of 2005, he and 22 of his supporters were jailed on an array of charges. Besigye and most of his supporters were released shortly before the February 23rd polls last year, which incumbent President Yoweri Museveni won.

In previous interviews with VOA, government and ruling party officials said there had been enough evidence to charge Besigye and his supporters, and that Besigye's time in jail was not an attempt to keep him from campaigning.

Regarding the latest incident, Minister of Internal Affairs Ruhakana Rugunda last week said he regretted the High Court storming.

Uganda Law Society president Adriko tells VOA he and his colleagues intend to pursue the matter further. "We are going to carry out a ceremony to cleanse the court of the defilement. Thereafter, the East African Law Society, our regional organization, is going to file an action in the East African Court of Justice against the government of Uganda, basically to obtain declarations from the court sanctioning the government of Uganda for continuous violation of the independence of the judiciary contrary to our constitution," he said.

Adriko says his organization may also institute disciplinary proceedings against the officials directly involved in the incident.