Africa

In Uganda, special court offers justice for rape

Courts across Uganda have begun trying hundreds of stalled sexual violence cases, including many of child rape, in an effort to provide long-overdue justice for victims.

At the first hearing in the capital Kampala dozens of male suspects in sexual violence cases filed into court, chained two-by-two, to appear before Lady Justice Jane Frances Abodo
At the first hearing in the capital Kampala dozens of male suspects in sexual violence cases filed into court, chained two-by-two, to appear before Lady Justice Jane Frances Abodo (AFP)

Courts across Uganda have begun trying hundreds of stalled sexual violence cases, including many of child rape, in an effort to provide long-overdue justice for victims.

Over a month, judges in 13 courts in six towns are aiming to hear 700 cases of sexual violence, crimes that make up over 60 percent of capital offences in Uganda, according to High Court judge Gadenya Paul Wolimbwa, who is coordinating the initiative.

"Sexual and gender-based violence offences are the most common and prevalent offences committed in Uganda, and from our reports only 10 percent of these cases end up in court," said Wolimbwa.

Official records show that over 211,000 sexual violence cases were reported in 2015-16 while a UN children's agency (UNICEF) report in August found that one in three Ugandan girls were subjected to sexual attacks.

The special court sessions began on Monday aiming to make a dent in the backlog of more than 6,000 outstanding sexual violence cases.

Wolimbwa said he hoped the hearings would prove successful, paving the way for the creation of a dedicated sexual crimes court. "What we are looking at is to have permanent special courts to try these cases," he said.

A range of rapists

At the first hearing in the capital Kampala dozens of male suspects filed into court, chained two-by-two, to appear before Lady Justice Jane Frances Abodo.

They represented a cross-section of Ugandan society, from unemployed young men to a middle-aged university lecturer. The alleged victims were similarly diverse, including an eight-year-old girl and a wealthy businesswoman.

Some of the victims had waited as many as seven years to see their attackers go on trial.

Rosemary Kyomugasho, a 38-year-old businesswoman, said her sister was left traumatised after being robbed and gang-raped. "We have been going to court for the last two years but the case is always postponed," she said.

In the courtroom, Chris Bakuneeta, a former professor at Uganda's Makerere University, denied assaulting and raping a 22-year-old student who was living in his garage in 2016, before Abodo adjourned his case for a week.

Later, Ivan Sewankambo pleaded guilty to raping an eight-year-old girl, also in 2016, and threatening to strangle her if she told anyone.

"You are convicted on your own plea of guilty," Abodo said, before moving swiftly onto the next case.

The resolution left the girl's father, 37-year-old Amon Bazale, relieved. "It has been a painful journey since we began the court process in March 2016," she said. "The rape left my daughter shaken. She at times wakes up in the night shouting, 'Dad! Dad! He is here!"

"I believe people who defile children must be sentenced to death," Bazale said, using an archaism for child rape that is widely-used in Uganda.

Justice long delayed

While Ugandan law allows for the death penalty for convicted rapists, judges in the special court sessions -- which are backed by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) -- will issue maximum life sentences.

Some cases had taken so long to see their day in court that the perpetrators had died in the interim.

Wolimbwa said that in Uganda "it is difficult to try these offences in normal courts" partly because of the social stigma attached to victims of rape -- especially children -- which discourages them from testifying, and partly because of lack of funds.

"We only get 40 percent of the budget we need and from there we decide what to do and that's why we have the backlog," he said.

Suspects, too, can become victims under the creaking slowness of Uganda's judicial system.

Alice Ssewagudde Nalongo, 56, whose son was accused of rape in 2016 and has been in jail awaiting trial ever since, welcomed the holding of the special sessions.

"It is a good thing the court is sitting, yet we are not happy because he was framed and wrongly accused," she claimed.

"How can someone spend two years in prison without being tried? If we win the case shall we be compensated?"