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'People in Zim are facing the same problems'
Jean-Jacques Cornish, Mail & Guardian (SA)
March 19, 2007

Recently, judges in Uganda went on strike to protest against government interference with the judiciary. The strike action followed government security agents' raid on the high court in Kampala to arrest six opposition supporters. The six men, members of the Forum for Democratic Change led by Kizza Besigye, had been granted bail after being accused of planning a coup and of being members of the People's Redemption Army (PRA). This week, judges are back at work, but now Ugandan lawyers have gone on strike.

Are you encouraged by the action taken by judges in Kampala?
Yes. Frankly, I think it was their due. The judiciary in Uganda has been under attack for a long time. While I was here in South Africa, there was a judgement in respect of the 2004 referendum on political parties. This stated that the movement's political system was never constitutionally established. As a result, the president threatened the judiciary and said they did not have the right to pronounce on these matters. He castigated them and threatened to "deal with them". It was a very severe attack. On March 1 there was a repeat of the November 2005 incident [in which the military laid siege to the high court where Besigye was facing rape charges, which have since been dropped].

Actually, it was worse, given the degree of force used by the authorities. In my view, the action by the judges was an act of desperation that should have occurred much earlier.

Were you surprised that the judges went this far?
I was not surprised by the action taken by Yoweri Museveni and his regime. He's informed the world that this is a determined dictatorship that will do anything to ensure that it destroys the checks and balances in a democratic system. Not only are the courts under attack, but all the institutions of a democracy, such as Parliament and security institutions, are gravely compromised.

What about the lawyers' strike following that of the judges'?
This is more about the serious breakdown of the rule of law and the state of human rights than simply the case earlier this month.

President Yoweri Museveni has reportedly apologised to the Bench. Do you believe he is sincere? Has he learned a lesson?
The judges demanded a clear apology and a number of undertakings from the president. Museveni did not offer an apology. He said he regretted the incident that finally led to the strike. The judges finally decided that, although the president had not used the word "apology", what he had said could be interpreted as one.

Is there a lesson for other countries -- for example Zimbabwe -- in this?
Yes, I think the lesson is that every person and institution must take constitutional rights very seriously and protect the people from any abuse of them. If they stand up to them firmly, the dictatorships will, without doubt, be checked.

The political elite in Africa has been complacent and compromised by dictatorships. Some judges have even become part and parcel of these systems and have been appointed to posts they do not deserve.

People in Zimbabwe are facing exactly the same problems as Ugandans. Our institutions must stand up to the dictators earlier than they have been. In that way we can achieve better results and protect the rule of law.

What is the state of the rule of law in Uganda?
It is precarious. There is no pretence by the executive of following the constitutional order and, as long as this happens, democracy remains an alien idea. The president is in direct conflict with the constitutional order. He believes he is above the Constitution and the law. This is why there are riots in the country.

Every regime in Uganda has been removed by force. We'd hoped that Museveni would be the first to hand over power peacefully. But by removing the constitutional term limit, which was designed to rectify former abuses, he is heading Uganda back to armed and violent conflict.

We will do everything within our means to insist on having democracy and to insist that constitutional order is respected. How far we can go depends on the regime. If it responds with further repression, the outcome cannot be predicted.

You are repeatedly accused of having contact with insurrectionists. Is this true?
Since opposing Museveni in 2000, I've been repeatedly accused of having contact with rebel groups like the Allied Democratic Forces and the PRA. I have absolutely no contact or connection with either of these.

I also do not have any intention of engaging in armed rebellion. But I have warned that the actions of the government and the denial of rights to the people will encourage armed rebellion.

Incidentally, the PRA has never engaged in any overt act of rebellion. Government accusations against me are just an excuse to crack down on the opposition.

How can the international community help Uganda?
With more than half the national budget funded by donor countries, the international community has enormous influence in Uganda.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, this leverage is not used. Each of the donor countries has vested national interests and these are put above the democratisation of Uganda. For example, Uganda is the only country to have supplied peacekeeping forces in Somalia. Countries wanting to encourage this process are reluctant to criticise Museveni's anti-democratic behaviour. I do not believe that countries failing to meet basic democratic standards should be allowed to provide peacekeeping forces.

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