8 Years, 4 Months, and 12 Days
The story begins one casual night at a remote trading town named Masindi. It is one of those places where the sun harshly follows you in the day and the stars seize your attention at night. It is place that understands the concept of distance, a place where the old rugged meaning of "journey" still has resonance. It is a place of few luxuries. Space and time have not been erased by easy transportation. To go somewhere there is to struggle to somewhere, and that is the nature of this story: a struggle to somewhere.
In April of 2002, a boyfriend and girlfriend went to watch a soccer game on TV at a local bar. While there, a man approached the girl and began to flirt with her. Annoyed, the boyfriend confronted the man and told him to stop. A shouting match ensued, which escalated into a minor scuffle. The altercation was broken up, and the two parties separated. The scuffle ended quickly and affairs went back to normal. It was just another silly bar fight, destined to be forgotten in short order. That is, until the following morning, when a farmer came upon the murdered body of the flirtatious man under the long leaved shade of a banana grove. He had been beaten to death.
A brief police investigation ensued wherein both the boyfriend and girlfriend were questioned as the principal suspects. They denied any involvement, and no evidence could be found that implicated either of them beyond the flirtation and scuffle from the night before. No witnesses to the actual murder could be found and no physical evidence placing either of the boyfriend or girlfriend at the scene was uncovered. The boyfriend had motive, but the girlfriend seemed to be implicated for no other reason than she dated the boyfriend. The police theory against her was essentially thus: Because she had been flirted with by the deceased and because her boyfriend scuffled with the deceased, she participated in the murder. The logic was poor and the evidence grossly insufficient to support an arrest.
Yet that is precisely what happened. Both the boyfriend and the girlfriend were taken into custody, and a State Attorney for the Directorate of Public Prosecutions ("DPP") submitted what is known as a "committal paper" to a magistrate in the Masindi Circuit. Pursuant to statute, a magistrate has no power to either request more evidence to substantiate the committal paper or deny it. Instead, he is required to grant any and all such indictments brought by the State and commit the accused to a remand home pending trial. In this capacity, the magistrate acts as a rubber stamp to the DPP. The statute places the entire onus of ensuring a sufficient evidentiary basis for bringing a case to court in the hands of the State Attorney – arguably the most biased and zealous participant in the criminal justice process. Unsurprisingly, the system has facilitated abuse. It is now common for a State Attorney to have someone imprisoned on a bogus case with little to no evidence. The accused does not receive so much as an apology when finally released by the High Court from custody after years of unjust waiting. The law came into being during the regime of Milton Obote, it should have ended with the regime of Milton Obote.
Upon entry to the remand home, the boyfriend and girlfriend were separated from one another, and told they would be called for when their case was slated for hearing. Frightened, weeping, and alone, the woman began to hope, pray, and patiently wait for the day when her hearing might come. The boyfriend opted for another course. He somehow escaped from the facility and disappeared - leaving her behind. She waited. One year passed, then two. Three years passed, then four. Five years passed, then six. Seven years passed, and then on the twelfth day of the fourth month in her eighth year of imprisonment, she stood before a judge for the very first time.
As part of an effort to reduce the backlog by trying out plea bargaining, Justice Albert Rugadya, the Deputy Head of the Criminal Division, had travelled to take on cases in Masindi. Rugadya had read through her court file and seen the weak case being brought forward by the DPP against the woman, when she first entered the courtroom. She desperately pled for mercy, even saying she would plead guilty if it meant she could be freed. She cried, saying she had been forsaken by God. The courtroom was in a hushed silence. A noticeable appearance of discomfort came upon the State Attorney's face. In a deliberate gaze pointed directly at his eyes, Rugadya chastised the State Attorney for bringing such a ridiculous case and immediately dismissed the matter. The woman was set free on the spot.
I was not there to witness the moment of her release. I wish I had been. I wonder where she went and what she did. I picture her walking away from the Masindi courthouse alone. Down a rutted red soil road, under the beating sun, with nothing but the clothes on her back, and nothing ahead of her but a world she has not seen for nearly a decade. I want to run up to her, and tell her she is not alone. I want to tell her she is loved. I want to tell her that God has not forsaken her. But I can't. She is no more real to me than a ghost. I know her only as a story of the challenging state of justice here in Uganda. I want to ask her questions. Instead I can only wonder. I find whatever complaints I may have pale in the presence of her story. I know her hurt must be extreme – to be abandoned by your loved one and to be allowed to writhe away unjustly by your country for almost a decade – but I cannot dare comprehend it. Somehow she will have to find a way to release the natural instincts toward anger, hate, and resentment; and allow the power of forgiveness to take hold. The challenge is tough, but the alternative is worse: a life wherein the demons of anger and hate and resentment take hold. If she is not careful the years she had lost to wrongful imprisonment will turn into a life lost to bitterness. I pray for her.
What I can do from my present position is to try and understand, and to help initiate ways through which future occurrences will never be replicated. I hope the efficient case management principles of plea bargaining will prevent or at least mitigate anything like this ever happening again. Stories like hers are the reason I am here.