In October, Justice Minister Nobert Mao is determined to fulfill his promise of ending the military court trial of 32 supporters of the National Unity Platform (NUP) opposition party. He strongly criticizes the security forces for their actions, claiming they are undermining the law and abusing the judicial process. Mao, who now leads the Democratic Party after aligning with the ruling NRM party, has been working to secure the release of political prisoners and establish a Cabinet committee on human rights.
Mao insists that military courts should not have jurisdiction over civilians, citing international human rights conventions and Uganda’s constitution. He believes that the army’s increasing tendency to try civilians in military courts must be rectified. To achieve this, he plans to meet with senior army officers in a Security Council meeting convened by Vice President Jessica Alupo.
The NUP 32, arrested between April and May 2023, are mainly ordinary people, including boda boda motorcycle taxi riders and technicians. They face charges of illegal possession of explosive devices, although some believe these charges are politically motivated due to their support for NUP leader Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine.
For Olivia Lutaya, one of the accused, her 28-month detention has been especially painful as she maintains her innocence. Her son, who was just 5 years old when she was arrested, frequently asks when she will be released, a question that brings her to tears. Olivia’s story is emblematic of the broader issue of delayed justice, with frequent postponements in the trial due to various reasons, including witnesses’ unavailability and changes in charges.
Lawyer George Musiisi, representing the NUP supporters, has been fighting for their release on bail, but the court martial has denied most of their applications. Families of the detainees have suffered, with some losing their homes and others facing health issues. Despite the challenges, the NUP supporters remain steadfast and refuse to admit guilt.
Justice Minister Mao’s efforts to end military trials for civilians are met with skepticism by some who believe that the government employs arbitrary arrests and releases to disorient the population and maintain its political control. Security forces often dangle amnesty as a lure, hoping detainees will implicate others in exchange for their freedom. Olivia, while accepting her fate, recognizes the difficult choices facing those unjustly detained.