Updated by Faith Barbara Namagembe at 1522 EAT on Wednesday 22 February 2023.
The release on bail of Kawempe North Member of Parliament Muhammad Ssegirinya and his Makindye West counterpart Allan Ssewanyana last week by High court at Masaka has drawn as much controversy as their dramatic arrest in 2021.
Their freedom has raised pointed questions and stirred a tense political debate over who negotiated the MPs’ release and who sanctioned it, with many fingers pointing to a nod of approval from the presidency. Despite a vow of transparency, the release has also shined a bright spotlight on the independence of the judiciary and the opposition.
Through interviews with people familiar with the MPs’ twisted journey to freedom, The Observer has learned that the lawmakers, broken by prison hardships, begged for a politically driven negotiation with the government way back in September last year, when they completed one year in jail. The MPs are accused of terrorism, murder, and aiding and abetting terrorism.
Last September, insider sources said, Mathias Mpuuga, the leader of the opposition in parliament, led a team of 10 shadow ministers into a meeting with the prisoners at Kigo prison.
The ministers included: John Baptist Nambeshe Manjiya), Evans Kanyike (Bukoto East), Betty Ethel Naluyima (Wakiso), Hassan Kirumira (Katikamu South), David Lukyamuzi Kalwanga (Busujju), Abdallah Kiwanuka (Mukono North), Goreth Namugga (Mawogola South), Joyce Bagala (Mityana), and Nsubuga Balimwezo (Nakawa East).
In the meeting, the two MPs implored Mpuuga to use his position to negotiate their release. Ssewanyana, according to our source, first tried to mend ties with LOP, whom they annoyed before their arrest.
He said he thought the LOP had abandoned them because they strongly criticized him for refusing to appoint them into shadow ministerial positions. He nudged the LOP to kick-start the negotiations.
Ssegirinya reinforced his colleague’s plea. He said if it weren’t for Mpuuga negotiating his transfer from Luzira prison to Mulago when he was sick, he would have died. When prison authorities adamantly refused to allow specialized treatment for Sssegirinya, Mpuuga intervened quickly.
He engaged the Commissioner General of Prisons Johnson Byabasaija. Within no time, Ssegirinya was allowed to see his private doctor and was later transferred to Mulago hospital.
“You negotiated for my treatment and transfer to Mulago hospital. I would be dead now if you hadn’t. You can help negotiate our release from jail. Talk to them,” Ssegirinya implored Mpuuga.
In response, Mpuuga, according to our source, asked the two MPs to give him the terms of engagement.
“Negotiate (with the government) under what terms… Give me terms; negotiate over what? You haven’t opened up to us to know what the real issues are,” Mpuuga reportedly told the MPs.
Only a handful of people have seen the lawmakers who were released last week, extending a painful wait for friends and supporters who want to hear the real story behind their arrest.
After the prison meeting, Mpuuga tweeted, “With Members of our Cabinet, we started off the day at Kigo Prison, where our colleagues, Hon @AllanSsewanyana & @ HonSsegirinya hv spent a year in incarceration. They remain in a disturbing state of health but are still warm to the cause of our struggle.”
“We are going to escalate their plight beyond the normal lines that we have been taking! Our worry is that the state is using @JudiciaryUG to frustrate their fair trial and, in effect, justice. #FreePoliticalPrisoners #Acco untabilityAndService,” he said.
On the MPs’ one year anniversary in prison in September 2022, the LOP also addressed parliament. He said, “Rt Hon Speaker and honorable members, today marks exactly one year since our colleagues, Hon. Allan Ssewanyana Aloysius and Hon. Ssegirinya Muhammad, were remanded to prison, whereby they have been detained to date.”
“We are disheartened by the circumstances surrounding their continued incarceration without trial, which all point to one thing—persecution by the state. We condemn the state for this persecution. Clearly, imprisonment without trial is tantamount to persecution,” he said, adding:
We are equally dissatisfied with the way the judiciary has handled this matter. At one point, the judiciary released the Honorable members on bail, but the state re-arrested them on similar charges. Other applications for bail have been unjustifiably denied or not entertained by the judicial officers at all, despite the overwhelming evidence on record that the honorable members suffer from illnesses for which they cannot get adequate medical attention while in prison. Charges were also raised without completing investigations. This has been the cause of the back-and-forth presentation of the members in court and their return to prison.”
He said he twice sought the intervention of the chief justice and the principal judge to prevail over the matter so that the members get a fair and speedy trial. “Unfortunately, audience has been denied nor have the concerns received any response.”
“I fear there might be a syndicated move to imprison the honorable members without trial, contrary to Articles 23 (1) and 28 (3) of the Constitution. These games have eroded the reputation of the judiciary and the trust citizens ought to have in the judiciary.”
“The actions of the state against the honorable members have fundamentally contravened their constitutional rights to the presumption of innocence, the right to apply for bail, and a fair and speedy hearing. For this reason, we are inclined to ask Parliament to intervene in this matter so that Hon. Allan Ssewanyana Aloysius and Hon. Ssegirinya Muhammad are released or subjected to a fair and speedy trial. An audit should also be conducted into the continued detention of all political prisoners who were arrested and remanded during the 2021 general elections.”
Mpuuga, our source said, learned about Monday’s February 13 court bail hearing that released the MPs on Sunday, February 12, when he was in his constituency. Mpuuga was called on Sunday by one of the lawyers representing the MPs. The lawyer simply laid out a list of requirements for the sureties.
Another source said, lawyer Caleb Alaka played a key role in convincing judicial officers to let the MPs walk. Speaking to journalists outside court in Masaka, Caleb said he studied with the director of public prosecutions, Jane Frances Abodo.
“I did it in the interest of justice, I engaged them,” he said, prompting a journalist to ask if the MPs wouldn’t be re-arrested like before.
“Forget about a re-arrest,” Alaka curtly said.
Interviewed for this story on Monday, Alaka, who was part of the legal team that represented the MPs in court, said, “To the best of my knowledge, there were no negotiations between the state and the individual MPs. When we filed the first bail application before Masaka High court judge Lawrence Tweyanze, the MPs were not yet committed for trial; the judge felt that they would interfere with witnesses.
He said by the time they filed the second bail application, circumstances had changed.
“The MPs were already committed, the investigations were complete, they had spent over 500 days on remand, there was no disclosure of evidence, they were frequently taken to Mulago hospital, meaning that Kigo prison had no capacity to treat them, and the DPP had no option but to either fix the matter for trial or give a certificate of no objection. The DPP took the second route. Remember, chief justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo had also indicated that the judiciary was ready for the trial. So, those were the circumstances under which the MPs were released. There was no deal-making or negotia- tion at all.”
Interviewed for a comment on Monday, Kimanya-Kabonera MP Dr Abed Bwanika said he proposed to the public and the National Unity Platform (NUP) that “there are so many of our colleagues who were arrested before and after the 2021 elections, and most of them are political prisoners, government preferred charges against them but has not gone ahead to bring evidence against them.”
“I proposed that it is important to put together a team, we go and face the state/executive and negotiate the freedom of our people. Mathias Mpuuga is the leader of the opposition in parliament, there is no way you can say that he cannot negotiate. We brought this issue on the floor of parliament, and the speaker, Anita Among, directed that it be handled in a meeting with prime minister Robinah Nabbanja, deputy speaker Thomas Tayebwa, attorney general Kiryowa Kiwanuka, Mpuuga, and others,” he said.
He said there’s no way Ssegirinya and Ssewanyana could be released without the nod of approval from President Yoweri Museveni.
Who went to the president? I don’t know,” he said.
The LOP has strongly denied any involvement in any negotiations with the government.
But Bwanika insists, “When you see what transpired in court and the release of the MPs without signing release papers, it is very clear there were negotiations. You saw how the prosecutor decided to withdraw some of the affidavits, and what surprises me is that there are no negotiations. I don’t believe in that notion. There are some issues where you can stand, resist, but on some political issues, you sit down and talk, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t do so and ensure that our colleagues get out of jail. And soon we shall know who went to negotiate,” he said.
Life may never be the same for Ssegirinya and Ssewanyana, who spent the past 523 days in jail and will spend this year and maybe the next, moving between their homes, parliament, and courtrooms, battling charges of terrorism, murder, and aiding and abet- ting terrorism.
The charges, which the MPs strenuously deny, stem from their alleged participation in the killing of people in the greater Masaka region by panga-wielding gangs in 2021.
They have lost time, property, friends, and family, and their health is failing. It was on September 7, 2021, when the outspoken MPs, full of life then, were remanded to Kigo prison. They never saw freedom again.
“I am very happy to see that my son has survived prison. To everyone who stood with us in this trying situation, thank you very much for traveling and standing with us. Thank you very much. I thank the judges, the lawyers,” said Justine Ssanyu Nakajumba, mother of Ssegirinya, soon after Masaka High court judge Lawrence Tweyanze released the two MPs on bail on February 13.
Trouble for the legislators started on September 3, 2021, when commissioner of police Paul Kato Tumuhimbise, on behalf of then Criminal Investigations Director, Grace Akullo, wrote to the speaker of parliament summoning the MPs to appear before detective Moses Taremwa at Masaka police station on September 6 and record statements in connection with the July and August 2021 Greater Masaka spate of machete killings.
About 26 people died and several others were injured in Lwengo and Masaka districts by panga-wielding thugs. The assailants primarily targeted elderly people living alone in their homes.
The police summons came days after police spokesperson Fred Enanga said some suspects arrested in connection with the machete attacks had implicated the two legislators for holding planning meetings for the murders in Ndeeba, a Kampala suburb.
Enanga said the suspects had revealed that the legislators promised them wealth for executing the machete attacks, which necessitated the police to summon the two to record statements. Both Ssegirinya and Ssewanyana showed up at Masaka central police in the company of their lawyers, including Kampala City Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and Shamim Malende, where they recorded statements before they were released on police bond and asked to return the following day, September 7, 2021.
When the legislators showed up as directed the following day, they were arraigned before then chief magistrate Charles Yeteise (now retired) together with five others and charged with three counts of murder and at- tempted murder allegedly committed on August 23, 2021, at Ssetaala and Ssenya villages in Kimanya-Kabonera division in Masaka City. Their co- accused are Jackson Kanyike, John Mugerwa, Bull Wamala, Mike Sserwadda, and Jude Muwonge.
The prosecution told the court that the accused persons murdered Francis Kizza, Sulaiman Kakooza, and Tadeo Kiyimba and attempted to murder Ronald Ssebyato of Ssetaala village in Masaka city. Yeteise didn’t allow the MPs to enter a plea, arguing that his court lacks jurisdiction on the matter, and remanded them to Kitalya prison.