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Promising Future: Rights for Prisoners & Justice in Uganda

Olyotya! (Hello) and greetings from downtown Kampala, Uganda… 

downtown kampala 1Downtown (Kampala)I arrived in Entebbe, home to Uganda's only international airport, 30 miles south of Kampala on the shores of Lake Victoria. I’m here on a pro bono trip to meet with the organisers of the African Prisoners Project (APP). I was picked up by Kizito, and brought to the APP headquarters where I was provided with accommodation directly above the office. The accommodation provided is a cool and pleasant apartment – with my own room and dining room. My hosts, Grace and Sumayya are making me feel very welcome and cooking fantastic food.

I have sampled Matooke (a fruit mashed looks a bit like mashed banana); Rolex (chapati and eggs); pumpkin soup; ground nuts; Posho (mashed maize); and Gonja (similar to Matooke).

The weather in Kampala is hot, but not oppressive – I’m still wearing a suit and tie. I sampled the local Nile beer and took lunch at Café Javas with Bruce Twongirwe and Abdul Seyiga the managing partners of Seyiga & Associates, a start-up law firm situated bang in the middle of Kampala, just a few minutes from the High Court. Café Javas is a pretty cool ‘international’ bar near Freedom Square in Central Kampala. There’s a laid-back atmosphere that made me feel instantly at home; a spacious and airy place, with a delicious menu on offer.

javas freedom squareCafe Javas near Freedom SquareI visited the world famous Makerere University in Kampala and spent the morning at the offices of PILAC (Public Interest Law Centre). PILAC is a fantastic organisation, whose vision is to build a legal profession alive to the social justice needs of the poor and vulnerable through legal education, research, legal aid, public interest litigation and by building strategic partnerships. 

PILAC have forged links with the African Prisoners Project, who work together to provide legal aid to inmates, as well as regularly providing guest lectures, tours for students, and organising moot competitions.

PILAC is associated with Makerere University and it provides legal aid to members of the local surrounding community according to need. As an organisation it is donor funded by the Democratic Governance Facility. PILAC disseminates information to the local communities who may not be aware of their legal rights. It also trains students who go into the communities as part of an outreach programme and increases knowledge of those they interact with on legal  issues which can cover marriage; land issues; inheritance and wills; criminal procedure; drug abuse; domestic violence and children’s rights. It comprises of a small team of dedicated and committed lawyers. They afforded me an hour or so out of their schedule and I was blown away by their dedication and commitment to their communities and their clients. Veronica Kange was my main point of contact. Veronica’s legal acumen, community spirit and dedication to changing outcomes were tangible. Nobody is turned away by PILAC, which is impressive in its own right when one considers the numbers of people in the local communities needing legal services. Clients attend without appointment and the organisation liaises with local leaders in the community to identify the contemporaneous issues and the leaders act as a referral agency for members of the community.

PILAC’s lawyers have loose associations with local legal firms and previously referred their clients to those firms when their cases came before the courts, but now PILAC is accredited which means its lawyers can attend court with the clients and follow their cases through from inception to logical conclusion. As a consequence, PILAC is recalling its files from those associated firms because it can now offer a full legal service to its clients. As it was explained to me by Veronica, ‘as an individual or as a team we will take the case from beginning to end’. PILAC also offers a mediation service and will get in touch with both parties in a dispute and seek to resolve issues between them by encouraging them to enter into contracts to settle disputes which still leave room for the court process to take effect should the terms of the contract be breached by either side. Much of PILAC’s mediation work revolves around domestic issues (such as domestic abuse; children’s welfare and marriage breakdown).

One of the most impressive aspects of PILAC’s organisation is its close connection with Makerere University. It recruits students from the law courses being conducted at the University. Naturally, there is great competition to be accorded a role with PILAC. This year PILAC has recruited students in even greater numbers than in the past because of the calibre of the applicants. Sixty-five students have been taken on. One of those students attended the meeting I had with the officers of PILAC. His name was David and he gave a moving account of how, as part of his role in the community projects, he had spoken to members of the community who had not made wills (out of a misplaced fear that even making a will might signify that their lives were drawing to a close), but who had no understanding of the ways in which they or the surviving members of their family might be cheated out of their inheritance by unscrupulous carpetbaggers. David had direct experience of the impact of his work as he saw with his own eyes the dawning of realisation in the eyes of those to whom he spoke. He was visibly moved when he related these events to us.

Veronica also gave a moving account of a young girl with a child who was locked up in prison with no representations and no understanding of the allegations she faced. Not only had she not been told of the specific allegations, but she did not understand the language of the court. She was desperate and had no idea how long she may be incarcerated. Her heart-breaking story has no happy ending. Even PILAC as an organisation can have limited impact on cases of this nature because the wheels of justice turn so slowly.

PILAC is encouraging other universities to set up similar legal clinics. To have enduring success however legal aid needs to be universal. The main hurdles to PILAC growing and extending its influence are logistics and resources. PILAC is building bridges with the African Prisoners Project. I am sure the officers of PILAC will have a meeting of minds with the officers of APP because it too is a highly impressive organisation.

At first it is difficult to take on board the breadth of the work undertaken by APP. I had an induction with Keavy on my first full day in Kampala APP’s human resources officer. It took a couple of hours for Keavy to give me some sense of the breadth of the work APP undertakes and its plans for the future. The work that has been done so far and the scope of the undertaking is breath-taking. Of particular interest to me is the desire of APP to provide legal services. As it was explained to me, it is anticipated that the ‘change makers’ that APP is training will give back to their communities, at a level appropriate to their level of knowledge and experience, and they will always have the support and oversight of practicing lawyers. These change makers will provide legal services to the most marginalised.

The work they will do will include legal education; helping to equip communities with knowledge of how the criminal justice system works and criminal procedure. Beyond this they will handle cases themselves working through a law firm with carefully designed systems which ensure accountability, consistency and the highest standard of services.

Key initiatives include the development of an outstanding cohort of lawyers who oversee the work being done by the prisoners and prison staff that APP is training, including visiting practitioners. Deployment will include prisoners being trained to help their own causes (e.g. appealing their own conviction, or challenging their sentence; providing informal advice clinics for other inmates; and provide legal services outside of prisons (e.g. civil disputes).

Another initiative is the creation of ‘career’ pathways with clear end points that are sustainable and inspiring. It is a community-based development which drives APP not personal aggrandisement. APP seeks to achieve success at a community level impacting on systemic issues.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the planning is that APP intends to set up a law firm which will provide legal services to the most vulnerable and in need. Naturally the law firm will be grounded on clear values, including high levels of professionalism, high transparency and high accountability. Costs should be kept low with an expectation that clients will pay affordable fees (possibly in kind) and governments will see the value provided and be willing to establish a legal aid system for criminal cases. A global network of lawyers, barristers and judges would continue to act as mentors and advisors. The high-level projections indicate that by the end of 2018 the objective is to provide 100,000 hours of legal services; have served 10,000 clients and had 4,000 people released from prison by changemakers; substantial reductions in death sentences and terms of imprisonment, leading to a decrease in prison occupancy.

The problems of overcrowding and overstaying in pre-trial detention in Kenya and Uganda are acute. 54.2% of prisoners in Uganda and 39% of prisoners in Kenya are on remand. Pre-trial remand time in Uganda for capital offences is 2.5 years. There are many lost and missing files which means cases are not progressed and appeals cannot be conducted in time. There is massive overcrowding in the prisons. In Uganda the capacity of prisons is 16,612 but there are currently 55,000 incarcerated in those prisons. The majority of prisoners are poor and illiterate and wholly unaware of their rights as prisoners or their basic human rights.

APP makes a tangible impact on the lives of prisoners. A cascade approach to education is employed; this systemic approach is viable; sustainable and replicable. The programmes introduced by APP into prisons are designed to have a uniformity of approach and are available across the board. The objective is that once the training programme is up and running it can be deployed by the networks within the prison system and APP can move on to the next prison or next project. The standards set will be employed across the board at each separate institution.

Although education in legal processes and training of change makers is central to the role of APP in its efforts to ensure access to justice for the masses, it has also set up health programmes and other programmes teaching life skills and leadership skills. Sustainable farms have been set up; libraries are stocked, and vocational training is offered. Participants are encouraged to further their studies and participate in secondments, lecturing and attending conferences around the world.

Integral to the success of these projects is the health of the prisoners and steps have been taken by APP to set up Prisons Village Health Teams (PVHTs). Health promotion is a central plank of APP’s approach through sport in prisons and nutritional support as well as palliative support to ensure dignity at end of life. APP also has a role in infrastructural development (toilets and water).

The enthusiasm of everyone associated with APP in their central office in Mutungo (a suburb of Kampala), is inspiring and contagious. As stated Keavy Biyinzika provided me with an excellent oversight of the work undertaken by APP and an indication of what was hoped we could achieve with the prisoners during my spell training those student prisoners who are presently studying the LLB through London University.

Thereafter I was introduced to Bruce Twongirwe, a newly qualified lawyer who completed his undergraduate studies at the world renowned Makerere University and his Post- Graduate course in Law at the associated school, a newly recruited volunteer with APP. Bruce has been my anchor in this process. He has enabled me to transition smoothly from my role as a defence criminal practitioner in London UK to a useful recruit for APP in its pursuit of its objective of providing practical training to the male and female students in Luzira prisons. Bruce has greatly assisted me to settle into my role. He has chaperoned me around Kampala and attended the prisons with me. His enthusiasm is unbridled, and he has been a tremendous asset. I am extremely grateful to him for taking time out of his ‘new’ legal practice to provide me with this degree of selfless support.

IMG 1492Outside Makerere University with comrades Jackson and BruceI am equally indebted to Sharon Twikirize she has pointed me in the right direction in terms of what APP requires without being dogmatic. She has secured my wholehearted support for the teaching that is required without any fuss.

I must also mention Jackson who has given me clear practical advice which has assisted me greatly. He studies with the students and he is aware of their individual likes and dislikes and he understands what is required of me to maximise the benefits for the students and make the whole experience worthwhile and enjoyable. I am extremely grateful for his input.

Everyone within APP such as Maria and Mercedes have made me feel most welcome and they have assisted me to put together all the paperwork necessary for the sessions with the students and ensured that all travel arrangements have worked smoothly and without a hitch. The preferred driver for APP is Kizito and he too has been punctual / helpful and kind which I greatly appreciate.

On Thursday, I attended at the men’s upper prison in Luzira and Luzira women’s prison and conducted an introductory seminar in which we discussed the programme of training over the next couple of weeks. I enjoyed the experience of meeting the students. They seemed to be interested in the practical aspects of what we were going to discuss, and I provided them with a moot problem to work on ahead of our first substantive training session on Monday. They were eager to participate, and the men will present their respective submissions when we meet on Monday, and the women will do the same when we meet at the end of this week.

I attended the Spring Gardens Hotel earlier today to use the gym and met a young guy there called Marcus who took me for a personal training session. On the way there I took an UBER with a young man named Muwanguzi. He explained to me that he had been a rower for Uganda at various regattas and that he was an industrial artist – designing jewellery and drawing. I examined some of his work which downloaded from his tablet. He clearly had talent. He worked as an UBER driver (aged 19 years) to fund his studies. I am considering visiting Lake Victoria with Bruce today.

This has certainly been an eye-opening trip so far. It has been a privilege to be able to meet and share with the people behind organisations which are wholly committed to bringing dignity and hope to the men, women and children in prison communities in Africa through healthcare education justice and leadership.

Emirates brought me here via Dubai. I am looking forward to the stop-off on way back - on the flight to Entebbe you could see Dubai really is an oasis in the desert. A far cry from Dubai’s towering metropolis, there is much to learn from Uganda and her people; the sense of community felt in Kampala was palpable, and the commitment shown to protecting the most vulnerable commendable.

Mark Kelly Fraud Barrister in London, UK

London based barrister specialising in sexual offences, fraud and financial and regulatory cases, serving Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, London, Bristol and the rest of the UK. You can get in touch with me directly on 020 8108 7186 or by completing the online contact form.

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