The International Crimes Division of the High Court in Kampala has dismissed an application in which the lawyers representing Kawempe North Member of Parliament Muhammad Ssegirinya and his Makindye West counterpart Allan Ssewanyana wanted to be part of the application seeking to protect prosecution witnesses.
The MPs are jointly charged with five others for murder, attempted murder, aiding, and abetting terrorism arising from their alleged involvement in the greater Masaka district machete killings which occurred between March and June 2021 and claimed more than 20 people and left scores injured.
The others are Jude Muwonge, Jackson Kanyike, John Mugerwa, Bull Wamala, and Mike Sserwadda.
But a few weeks ago, the prosecutors led by Joseph Kyomuhendo and Richard Birivumbuka filed an exparte application for non-disclosure of the identities of 17 witnesses they intend to rely on to prosecute the accused persons of the crimes against them.
In the application, the prosecutors prayed to have delayed disclosure of the identities of those witnesses, limiting the number of people to access the information and keeping the log of persons handling information related to those witnesses.
According to the Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions Thomas Jatiko who swore an affidavit supporting the application, some of the witnesses have expressed fears because they have allegedly been threatened and intimidated due to their perceived association with the investigation and prosecution of this case.
Jatiko noted that disclosing their identities at this stage is most likely to compromise their safety and their well-being as well as that of their close associates because some of the accomplices in the case are still on run.
He indicated that some of the accused persons are very influential members of the society with the capacity to interfere with the witness and that the state doesn’t have sufficient resources to employ witness protective measures for a longer time if the identities are revealed at this stage of the Pretrial hearing.
Jatiko asked the court to grant them permission to proceed exparte and have the identities not revealed at this stage to the defense lawyers.
The suspects’ lawyer Medard Lubega Sseggona made submissions to the court requesting to be part of the application saying the ex parte application violates their rights to a fair hearing.
Sseggona asked Court to direct the prosecutors to avail them with a copy of the witness protection application adding that as defense lawyers, they are also officers of the court and equal parties together with the prosecution and are willing to abide by any conditions that the Court will impose.
But the prosecutors insisted that according to the High Court Rules, an application aiming at protecting the witnesses must be ex parte.
They contended that availing the witness protection application to the defense at this stage of the pretrial hearing will prejudice the safety of witnesses and the prosecution case.
On Monday, International Crimes Judge Alice Komuhangi Khauka agreed with the prosecution that allowing the accused persons to access the witness protection application will be in violation of the rules and principles of the High Court and International Crime Division.
“It would therefore mean that the Court has miserably failed in its duty to ensure that the safety and wellbeing of the witnesses are not compromised. The application before me is to determine whether the prosecution should disclose at this stage of the Pretrial and how the disclosure should be effected and cannot, therefore, be inter parties”, said Komuhangi.
Komuhangi added that the rules governing the International Crimes Division of the High Court provide for a mandatory ex parte application for witness protection and that even if the defense lawyers are the ones who had filed it, she would also grant it the same way.
“I also hold the view that the duty to protect witnesses is not only limited to prosecution witnesses. It extends to the protection of the witnesses of the accused persons in the event there is a need. Even if the exparte application was made by defense counsel to have witnesses for the accused persons protected, I would treat it in the same way because I have a duty to do so”, added Komuhangi.
Komuhangi, fixed the ex-parte application for 17 state witnesses for September 29, 2022.
One of the MPs’ lawyers Samuel Muyizzi Mulindwa said that the dismissal of their application affects their preparation to challenge the prosecution evidence.