Ugandan Court Fails to Hold Confirmation of Charges Hearing in Kwoyelo Case

A pre-trial hearing at the High Court of Uganda in the case of Colonel Thomas Kwoyelo did not occur as scheduled on July 18, 2017, reportedly because of a lack of funds. The hearing had been scheduled to confirm the charges against Kwoyelo, but it failed to take place when neither the judges, the prosecution, nor the defense lawyers showed up for the proceedings. This was meant to be the sixth pre-trial hearing of the case this year. The start date for the main trial remains uncertain given that the charges against Kwoyelo have not been confirmed.

Colonel Thomas Kwoyelo is a former commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Crimes Division (ICD) of Uganda’s High Court. Kwoyelo has been in detention since he was captured by the Ugandan army in 2008. He first appeared before the ICD in 2011, but the start of his trial was delayed as a result of preliminary objections raised by his defense lawyers, who argued that he was entitled to amnesty under Ugandan law. This matter was not settled until 2015, when Uganda’s Supreme Court ruled that amnesty did not apply to Kwoyelo and that his trial could move forward.

In 2016, three pre-trial hearings were held in April, August, and September in an unsuccessful bid to confirm the charges against Kwoyelo. In 2017, three pre-trial hearings were held in January, February, and March, again with the purpose of confirming the charges against Kwoyelo.  While these latest pre-trial hearings were supposed to pave way for the commencement of the trial this year, they instead created legal challenges that further delayed its start.

The fourth pre-trial hearing for 2017 was scheduled for May 9 and was to be held at the High Court in Kampala. The  proceedings failed to take place because the ICD officials had been invited to attend a two-day training on sexual and gender-based crimes in Entebbe. In addition, the defense argued that the prosecution had filed their submissions late and therefore the defense needed additional time to file their responses. In response, the court postponed the hearing to June 12, 2017.

 At the June 12 pre-trial hearing, which took place at the High Court in Kampala, the defense argued that due to a late submission of documents by the prosecution, they did not have time to file a reasonable reply and asked for an adjournment. In her ruling, the presiding judge, Justice Susan Okalany, noted that neither the defense nor the prosecution had complied with the timeframe as ordered by the court in the previous hearings. The judge adjourned the hearing until July 18, emphasizing that a ruling on the confirmation of charges would be made regardless of whether or not the parties had filed their submissions as ordered.

However, on July 18, proceedings again did not take place, and no explanation or official statement was provided by the court. No court official was present in the courtroom on the day of the hearing, and the building was not opened until after the scheduled start time. An enquiry to the office of the superintendent of the ICD revealed that the hearing was cancelled due to lack of funds and that a new date would be announced. The hearing could also have been delayed because state prosecutors in Uganda were on strike for close to two weeks as they demanded a pay increase. While the strike was called off on Monday, July 17, it is possible that it could have also contributed the hearing’s cancellation. No new date has been set for the next hearing.

The judiciary’s claim that the ICD has no money to conduct Kwoyelo’s trial points to a lack of planning and prioritization to dispose of the Kwoyelo case, which has been pending for several years. With no clear timeframe for trying the case, it is unclear when the trial will begin.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda since 2006. He is also the Co-Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local Non-Government Organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda.