Members of Parliament subscribing to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) yesterday rejected a proposal by President Museveni, the party national chairperson, to amend the Constitution and scrap bail for suspected capital offenders.
At a sitting at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds in Kampala, a number of legislators told Mr Museveni that they understood that he likely meant well with his revived proposal, but the right of a suspect to apply for bail, pending prosecution, is a matter already settled in law.
Bail is a fundamental right under Article 23(6) of the 1995 Constitution because any accused person, under Article 28 of the country’s supreme law, is presumed innocent until proven or pleads guilty.
Article 23(6)a specifically provides that an accused person “is entitled to apply to the court to be released on bail, and the court may grant that person bail on such conditions as the court considers reasonable”.
Whereas the eligibility conditions may vary, judicial officials often consider an accused person’s health, personal and criminal record, the pedigrees of the sureties to enforce the accused person’s attendance of court and gravity of the offence allegedly committed.
It is these arrangements that President Museveni is opposed to, arguing that granting discretionary powers to courts on bail decision is a “provocation” and, without providing statistics, said a cause of growing mob justice incidents in the country.
“Really! Somebody has killed a person and you see him walking around, that is a provocation I am telling you. It’s a provocation, we can’t accept it,” the President said on Monday at the 4th Kiwanuka Memorial Lecture at the High Court Building in Kampala.
The memorial lecture commemorates the legacy of Kiwanuka, whom Idi Amin tapped as Chief Justice before their disagreement culminated in soldiers storming the temple of justice, 49 years ago, to yank out the then head of judiciary, the last time he was seen alive.
President Museveni seized on the occasion on Monday to renew his decade-old demand that capital offenders should not be eligible for bail, a proposal that legal scholars and practitioners, among them former Supreme Court judge Justice George Kanyeihamba, was risked to erode the rule of law and would be counter-productive.
Following his tough rhetoric, Mr Museveni followed through by summoning MPs in the 11th Parliament that are members of the ruling NRM party that he chairs, to strike a common position on the proposed.
Instead, the legislators disagreed, according to multiple sources that attended the meeting, prompting the President to ask the lawmakers to consult further and reconvene to reconsider the matter in a fortnight.
First to take the floor, according colleagues who spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprimand by the party leadership, was Mr Yusuf Mutembuli, the Bunyole East member of Parliament.
A lawyer, he reportedly told President Museveni to go slow on his proposal because anyone could become an accused person for alleged capital crimes, meaning removing the bail safeguard could boomerang.
“The President wants the law related to the granting of bail strengthened so that the presiding judicial officers can apply it cognisant of its implication to the society,” one source, who attended the meeting, said.
According to another source, after MP Mutembuli spoke, Terego District Woman Rose Obiga, herself a lawyer, made a passionate and assertive submission, littered with what she called examples of miscarriage in her professional justice, which took the audience by surprise.
She reportedly told the President in one instance that her former landlord was arrested when a dead body was found on his land, but for the weeks in was incarcerated, unknown people ploughed through his land and hastily began erecting structures.
It was not until Ms Obiga returned from a trip outside the country that she pursued justice for the landlord as it became clear the corpse was likely dumped by land grabbers to frame him.
Thus, sources said, the MP invited the President to consider himself a father figure that he is to the legislators, who she said are members of the same family, and agree to stay the proposal to scrap bail for suspected capital offenders unless they serve half-a-year on remand.
Ms Obiga yesterday declined to comment on the discussions saying the deliberations were confidential.
According to another lawmaker, who attended, they also spurned the Museveni bail plan because they could themselves fall victim, and nonetheless sought more time to consult their constituents.
The MP said: “Let’s leave the abolition of bail alone. We should strengthen the judiciary and judges so that they can hear these cases fast. Someone is innocent until proven guilty.”
“You have seen people are implicated when they are innocent. Today is somebody and tomorrow is you and me.
Look at the former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, who forced some laws and they fell victim to the same. Let us leave the (bail) status quo as it is,” the source added, in apparent reference to the phone tapping and revision of the Anti-Terrorism legislations.
NRM Caucus Secretary General Lillian Aber, who doubles as Kitgum Woman MP, told Daily Monitor that the President summoned the meeting to present his proposals on how to manage crime in the country.
According to her, murder rape, corruption and defilement topped Mr Museveni’s list of crimes that the proposed constitution amendment would stem because the current provisions, according to the President, do not handle suspected culprit well.
“He suggested to us that as legislators who subscribe to NRM party, we [should] think of having these issues addressed by not just giving that liberty for any criminals to get bail after committing a crime,” she said.
The President reportedly also argued that if a person is arrested on capital charges, rather than free him on bail, judicial officers should leave them on remand for at least 180 days to give time for other agencies to conclude investigations.
Ms Aber said, contrary to what other legislators reported, there was a mixed reaction to the proposal, which is why Mr Museveni asked for more consultations.
At the meeting, Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka reportedly argued that there was a misleading perception among sections of the population and politicians that bail is an automatic right, yet it is discretionary.
MP David Kabanda (NRM; Kasambya), told Daily Monitor at Parliament that he is opposed to the proposal to scrap bail and he will continue opposing it.
“I am a cadre of the NRM party, but I don’t agree with some of the positions,” he said, citing the possibility of falling victim if framed by political foes.
“What if they (accusers) connive with the police and judiciary, they frame me and I will be in prison for six months or a year because the police are still investigating?” Mr Kabanda added.
Earlier, Terego Woman MP Obiga had reportedly told the Kololo meeting that the justice administration in the country was riddled with corruption and asked President Museveni to fight it so that cases are expedited.
The Government Chief Whip, Mr Thomas Tayebwa, said being granted a bail is not a right, but applying for it is a right.
“So, the issue is how the court is interpreting this. Most of them are taking it that bail is indeed a right. So, we have to go back and see how best do we cure [this]. Do we amend the law? Do we take it [to the Constitutional Court] for constitutional interpretation? Do we have more judicial guidelines from the Chief Justice over the matter?” Mr Tayebwa said.
Mr Amos Okot, the MP Agago North County, said denying bail to suspects risks aggravating congestion in prisons.