Inside Uganda’s Notorious Prisons: Visiting Karamagi

By Silver Kayondo, board member of Solidarity Uganda

How Uganda’s jail rooms have become a menace to the country’s youth, how “orders from above” has become a blanket euphemism for abuse of statutory authority and what can be done about it.

On Sunday, 2nd February, 2014 at exactly midday, I set off to visit a friend and law school colleague Mr. Andrew Karamagi who had been detained at the Central Police Station in the heart of Kampala’s metropolitan city. He had been detained not for stealing public funds of those infected with H.I.V, malaria and T.B. Neither was he in custody for using his legal knowledge to sanction shoddy works on public roads, schools and hospitals.

He was in jail because he had shown his displeasure with Uganda’s Attorney General’s speech on how the Ugandan Government was complying with the rule of law, respecting the independence of the judiciary, et cetera on the occasion to mark the opening of the new law year in Uganda. Andrew had walked out of his chair and picked the paper containing the speech from the podium where the Attorney General Hon. Peter Nyombi was giving his speech. In attendance were the judges, lawyers, and other judicial officers. He was immediately arrested, taken to the police station and detained without charge.

To put the above in context, the speech was being made at a time when suspects are regularly detained incommunicado beyond the 48 hours in violation of the Constitution. The Acting chief Justice in the chair also doubled as the Acting Deputy Chief Justice. Even as I write this blog entry, the country does not have a substantive Chief Justice and a deputy. For a long time, the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and Constitutional Court were not fully constituted. The number of remandees (presumed innocent under Ugandan law) exceeds that of convicts in the notorious jail rooms.

Back at the jail room, I was joined by two other friends from law school – Perez Onyait Odeke and Jonathan Mwesigwa Ssekiziyivu who were also there to visit Andrew. They had arrived earlier than me but they had been told that the police had instructions (from a higher authority) not to let anyone see Andrew before 1 p.m because “it was a special case.” Perez had been told to keep away from the Police Station lest he would be charged with being idle and disorderly! I found him standing at the City Square park – a public square that is cordoned off by police. We had walked back to the police station together. Jonathan was sitting on the short perimeter wall at the station. After exchanging a few jokes as we waited for the scheduled time, we set off for the police reception.

At the reception, one cannot fail to see the sorry state of the police station. The chairs are torn and tattered. The investigations rooms reeking with a pungent stench of human sweat and the humans there compete with reptiles (wall geckos and lizards) for space! Very little facelift has been done on the police station which we inherited from the British colonialists in 1962. The cement walls and floor are cracked. The store room where the suspects property (shoes, belts, caps, etc) are kept is not locked and it has no lockable drawers.

We found the policewoman on duty taking a nap on her duty desk. The male colleague seemed not bothered. We sat, introduced ourselves and stated the purpose of our visit. Madam police officer (who by now was sitting lazily in her chair) had woken up. She asked the male colleague, “What are the instructions [on Andrew]?” The male colleague replied, “They can now go and see him.” It was 1:05 p.m.

We were directed to a room adjacent to the reception – the jail room. Outside, we found a visibly young and energetic policewoman. She appeared to be in her mid-20’s. She was smart, had a well ironed uniform and seemed more tolerant and understanding. We greeted her and asked to see Andrew. She yelled at the RP (the man at the jail room door), “RP, Leeta Looya.” (Meaning: “RP, bring the lawyer.” [Andrew is a lawyer by profession])

After a few minutes, Andrew was with us just outside the jail room. Clad in a light blue shirt, well tucked in, a black pair of trousers with a copy of the Sunday Monitor newspaper in his hands. He had his stockings on. The belt was off as a standard procedure for all detainees. It was a jovial mood. He hugged each one of us and thanked us for visiting him.

Andrew Karamagi (left)

In a minute, he had switched to his activism. “Look, we don’t have a substantive Chief Justice. The Deputy was appointed by an internal memo and not by instrument as provided by the Constitution. And the Attorney General is talking about rule of law and independence of the judiciary! I do not see any offence for protecting the Constitution against molestation by using means that are peaceful but unconventional. I had many options. I could have beaten up the Attorney General, but I didn’t. We have the video clip from NTV.”

As we continued to engage in loud conversation with Andrew, the officer on duty would occasionally pass by to eavesdrop on what we were talking about. My attention was shifted to the other detainees. A young woman from the ladies’ wing had a deep cut on her forehead. I don’t know what happened to her. She walked past me looking very weak and tired. More visitors were outside waiting to see other detainees. One of the detainees was John from Arua Park (a popular hangout for unemployed youth in Kampala). I heard one of the female visitors asking the female officer whether she knew John from Arua Park. That is how I got his name. Other visitors were told to go away without seeing the inmates they had come to visit.

After about 15 minutes, we were told that our time was up and we had to leave. It was a fulfilling journey because I had got the opportunity to see what transpires at this notorious jail room. I also left the station a disappointed man. 48 hours later, Andrew does not know the charge against him. After four series of police interrogation, there is scanty evidence. He does not know whether he will be arraigned in court tomorrow (Monday) or if he will be released on bond. There is no communication channel to inform him about the progress of his case (if any).

And, Andrew is not the only one. A lot of youths are in detention for petty crime, some for up to more than a year without knowing the nature of the accusations against them. That is how the jail rooms have become chains to silence the youths. It is high time we devised concrete practical steps of arresting youth unemployment; corruption, impunity, and public sector break down. That way, we will be able to create more opportunities for tolerance, an educated youth with sufficient knowledge and skills, and prosper as a nation.

Those who expect to eat from the tree of liberty, freedom, and prosperity must undergo the fatigue of protecting and nourishing it. Jailing the youths is not a viable option in the long run. Incarceration does not reform. We need to listen to the concerns of the young people. They are the people who will make or break Uganda.

The writer is a young Ugandan lawyer and Solidarity Uganda board member. This blog entry is dedicated to the collection of Andrew Karamagi’s jail notes and the many youths holed up in Uganda’s jail centers.

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