Uganda's army court defies ruling to stop trying civilians

A screenshot of a video showing Sanya Muhydin protesting his two-year detention and military court trial.

A new trial on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023 against three people accused of spreading harmful propaganda against the Ugandan army has highlighted the repressive use of military courts in Uganda. One of the accused was Agaba Anthony —also known as Bobi Young — who has served as the bodyguard for Ugandan musician-turned-politician and former opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine. The other two charged were serving officers. The charge sheet read that the trio spread the ill statements in the areas of Kazo, Mbarara, and Kampala districts.

Twitter user, Byamugisha Moses tweeted a photo of the chargesheet,

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has been in power for 37 years following a coup d'etat in 1986. Since then, political opponents to his rule have faced brutal arrests and imprisonments. Four-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye has been imprisoned several times since 2001 and fled into exile in South Africa in 2001 for four years. During the 2021 general elections, the government banned all public political campaigns citing COVID-19 prevention. Yet Bobi Wine continued to hold public rallies which led to his arrest on November 18, 2020, consequently leading to nationwide protests in which 50 people were killed by security operatives and hundreds were arrested.

The Ugandan army also runs a court martial that is part of this repression, and this is the court where Young and two others faced charges. The court is supposed to try serving army officers. However, it also tries civilians with cases concerning national security and has tried political leaders including Bobi Wine following his arrest during a by-election campaign in Arua, West Nile region in 2018 on charges of treason.

Prior to his arraignment, Bobi Young had been abducted by plain-clothed men and bundled into a Toyota Hiace van, a vehicle the army in Uganda uses to arrest opposition political activists and famously referred to as a drone because of its speed, stability on the road and ability to deliver under tough conditions.

Bobi Wine posted in protest of the abduction and trial of civilians in the military court:

Wine is the lead opposition politician challenging President Museveni's 37-year rule. Wine rose to fame in the early 2000s as an artist with music citing the challenges that people face, especially in the ghettos. In 2018, he was elected as the Kyadondo East constituency member of parliament in a by-election. Then, he ran for the presidency in 2021 and came second.

Bobi Young's trial in the court-martial comes after the constitutional court in December 2022 ruled that it is illegal for the court-martial to try civilians. Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper quoted Justice Elizabeth Musoke saying:

I would declare that the UPDF Act, 2005 to the extent that it may be understood as conferring jurisdiction on military courts to try civilians is unconstitutional and therefore null and void,…

I would order that the convictions and sentences of civilians which arose from criminal cases tried by military courts prior to the date of this judgment, are valid. However, in future any trial of civilians by military courts and any decision that may be taken at such trials to convict and or sentence civilians shall from the date of this judgment be invalid, null and void.

Justice Musoke was referring to the Uganda People's Defense Forces (UPDF), which is the national army.

The same ruling asked that all cases pending trial and those that have been partially heard be transferred to civilian courts. However, the court-martial continues to try civilians. On Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, one of the civilians that was arrested during the 2021 elections protested regarding the way the court-martial carried the trials detaining them for more than two years. He can be heard in the video below saying that the court should have sentenced them for supporting Bobi Wine if that is the crime they are being accused of.

Several people were moved by Sanya's bold move to stand up against the court martial while others were worried about what would happen to him after he was taken back to jail.

Twitter user @woundedUgandan commended Sanya's boldness.

Another Twitter user, @HillaryTaylorVI, who identifies as Justice Hunter in their profile, opined that if all Ugandans had the courage of Sanya Muhydin, then it would be easier to oust the longest-serving president.

Many Ugandans are scared of standing and speaking up against President Museveni's regime and wrongdoings for fear of being arrested or even killed. 

There are dozens of Bobi Wine supporters in jail. In 2022, National Unity Platform's (NUP) leader of the opposition, Mathias Mpuuga presented before parliament and later before the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) a list of 25 people whose whereabouts are not known. A post by UHRC on their website quoted the commission's head Mariam Wangadya stating that seven of the 25 missing persons had since been released. It reads in part: 

NUP responded to the Commission’s request in a letter dated 29th November 2022 providing detailed information on the 25 alleged missing persons including their photos; the dates they reportedly went missing; and contacts of their next of kin. However, our investigations have so far established that 7 out of the 25 alleged missing persons were released in December 2022 and have since reunited with their families.

All this happens even as the president's son, General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, a serving army officer continues to hold rallies across the country and tweet politically charged statements with threats to attack its neighbour Kenya.

With all this happening for the president's son, Bobi Young joins dozens of young people in Ugandan jails for speaking about the political situation in their country. It is unclear when Bobi Young and the rest will ever regain freedom.

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