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By Evelyne Naikoba | 30 September 2019

The Uganda Law Society (ULS) is the heartbeat of the legal profession in Uganda; charged with ensuring high level professionalism among lawyers. Its vision is to be a proficient Bar Association in fostering access to Justice, the Rule of Law and Good Governance in Uganda which can be achieved by promoting a unified voice within the profession, regulation of the legal profession, protection of the rule of law and engaging law reform. Aside from ensuring professionalism for its members, the ULS has an unspoken duty to ensure the safety of its members by protecting them, should the need arise.

Over the past few months, a number of lawyers have unfortunately been intimidated, kidnapped, illegally arrested or imprisoned on trumped-up charges for taking on causes that are unpopular with the State or powerful interest groups (particularly where human rights breaches are highlighted) and politically sensitive issues, among others. A case in point was the arrest of Advocate James Mubiru who was assaulted and illegally arrested by unidentified persons at the High Court Anti-Corruption Division in Kololo on 11th September 2019; together with his clients (four suspects alleged to have murdered former Police Spokesman – Andrew Felix Kaweesi). The suspects were rearrested following their release on bail. Prior to that, on 12th July 2019, Advocate Matsiko Godwin Muhwezi was kidnapped by unidentified security operatives moments after Mr. Joseph Kabuleta was arrested. Interesting to note is that the police forces in whose custody he was as we later came to learn did not explicitly declare the charge warranting his kidnap/arrest.Another incident was the kidnap of Advocate Bonny Akol in Najjera early this month (September 2019) by unknown persons for allegedly obtaining money by false pretence.In a more recent twist of events,a human rights lawyer, Eron Kiiza was early this month summoned to record a statement by the media crimes department of the Criminal Investigations Division over an undisclosed crime and believes that these summons are a ploy to intimidate him from proceeding with his fight for justice in a land matter involving Mubende residents that were allegedly evicted without proper compensation.What however cuts across the board for all the above instances, is that just a handful of lawyers, most of whom are members of the ULS take it upon themselves to secure freedom and justice for their fellow learned friends while ULS- the body that ought to spearhead this cause conveniently absconds from its primary duty.

Whereas the ULS has dutifully employed its usual modus operandi i.e. release of statements condemning these illegal acts, one cannot help but wonder whether this kind of response is in and of itself sufficient. Moreover, the ULS has been seen to selectively respond to the plight of its members. A case in point being Advocate Matsiko Godwin Muhwezi, who the ULS suprisingly and oddly never spoke up about despite notification about his disappearance in July 2019.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers stipulate that the professional associations of lawyers have a vital role to play in upholding professional standards of ethics, protecting their members from prosecution and improper restrictions as well as infringements. They further provide that such associations have a role of providing legal services to all in need of them, and cooperating with governmental and other institutions in furthering the ends of justice and public interest. These Principles therefore establish the minimum standard and best practises for the ULS and other Bar Associations around the world as they carry out their objectives.

In light of the above, while ULS’ condemning of the increasing attacks on the independence of lawyers, violence and intimidation is commendable, more must be done as Ugandan lawyers continue to operate under unsafe conditions; regardless of the various and repeated statements issued by the ULS over the years. Moving forward, the ULS should look into other methods beyond issuing and publishing statements; borrowing from methods used by other Bar Associations. The ULS is therefore urged to consider the following proposals:

  • Establishing an active rapid response mechanism by way of a Litigation Committee (comprising not only ULS members who form part of the staff body but advocates running law firms) to represent its members. Bar Associations such as the Law Society of England and Wales and others across Europe have for instance set up special Committees dedicated to supporting their members by way of legal representation in case of professional risk or persecution as well as psycho-socio therapy following trauma suffered in the course of legal practice or arising from frustrations from the same. A special fund should also set up for this cause. This will certainly assist the ULS in responding more effectively to the plight of lawyers; thereby guaranteeing the independence and safety of the legal profession.
  • Actively pushing for and supporting prosecution and/or suit of the perpetrators of such violations against its members, to deter anyone from engaging in similar acts. It should be very costly for one to assault, kidnap or illegally arrest a lawyer in the course of his/her duties.
  • Owing to the fact there have been repeated incidences of this kind over the years and no heeding by duty bearers to its admonitions, the ULS in line with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers should seek declarations by way of a petition on the unconstitutionality of these actions involving intimidation, assault and illegal arrests of lawyers in the course of their duties which can be invoked for future incidents.

Overall, the ULS must be seen to execute its obligations to its membership, actively, effectively and without fear or favour.