Probably the only time I will ever witness a TERRORISM trial

By Ankita T.

Kampala, Uganda

My first week in the High Court Criminal Division was spent sitting around in the library, waiting several hours to see the Registrar, playing (and setting a new high score!) on Flappy Bird, and reading through the newspaper to try and learn the current events of Uganda. Although this was slightly expected, it wasn’t the most fun having to go through by myself (I was the only intern placed in the Criminal Court). But then, things began to get a little better. I became friends with one of the local interns/clerks, Akram. He showed me around the Court and told me where to go to find out when cases are being heard and how to read through a case file before writing an opinion. He also told me that in a few weeks, beginning June 8, there was a Terrorism case being heard in the Criminal Court. “A terrorism case?” I asked, getting excited and curious. “Yea! There were multiple bombings in Kampala in 2010, and in March 2015, the lead prosecutor on the case was shot in the head and killed. And they’re finally restarting the case on June 8. You should come sit in on it,” he said. As excited as I was, I was also concerned about the fact that there were going to be 13 terrorists sitting right there in front of me. But as the morning of June 8 came around, I was excited to sit in on this case. (If you want background on the bombings, here it is).

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I had sat in on many court sessions here (which are drastically different than those in America), but I was assuming this one would be different because it was such a high profile case. Generally, court sessions are scheduled for 9:00 am but begin at 10:00 am, and many times the attorneys or appellants do not show up. But I would soon find out that my assumption was wrong. This case was still being heard in Uganda, which meant it was still running on “Uganda Time.”

I got to Court earlier that day because I knew there would be heightened security (and regular security at the Criminal Court already entails 2 security checkpoints). I got to Court at 8:15 am, had to show my ID at the gate, spent 10 minutes convincing a guard that I worked in the Criminal Court (until finally one of my Judges’ bodyguards saw me and told her I was allowed in), went through a full body pat-down, went through another security check (this time with a metal detector – which they have everywhere in Kampala, but even when it beeps nobody says or checks anything), and finally got inside Court. We (a few other interns had also joined me) then sat around for two hours before Court finally began at 10:30. Just a few rows in front of us, were 13 terrorists associated with Al-Shabaab (and none were in handcuffs).

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The Courtroom was FILLED with people and journalists. Additionally, the Judge allowed news reporters into the courtroom to RECORD the trial and air it on TV. This was a high profile terrorism case, and the witness testimonies were being filmed and aired on every news outlet (yea, this wouldn’t happen in America). Although the main Court session runs in English, most of the prisoners did not understand English so there were 3 different interpreters translating everything being said into different languages. This made the trial much slower and longer. The most shocking thing though was the unprofessional manner of the main Defense attorney. He kept cutting off the interpreters so the prisoners couldn’t understand what was going on, he tried to say the witness was being difficult and lying, and when the Judge called him out on it, he merely laughed. This entire time, the State Attorneys never objected to anything the Defense attorney was saying – they just sat there and did not protect their own prosecution witness.

As soon as it hit 12:58, the attorney stopped his questioning and said “My Lord, it is almost 1:00 pm. Time to adjourn for lunch.” Lunchtime here is a big deal. No matter what, lunch happens from 1:00-2:00 pm, even when you are in the middle of a high-profile terrorism trial. So the Court adjourned for lunch and started back up at 2:30 pm. This was the entire week of trial – it was scheduled for 9:00 but wouldn’t start till 10:30 (one day it started at 12:05), and it always adjourned somewhere between 12:50-1:00 pm.

Although everything ran on “Uganda Time” and the etiquette of the lawyers was many times less professional than that of undergraduate interns, sitting in on a terrorism trial was a very unique opportunity, and we made it onto national television and the newspaper in Uganda! In the process, we also made a new Mzungu friend (a law enforcement officer from America — but I have a feeling I can’t actually mention his name or where he works because that has to do with America, not Uganda! and security in America is a much bigger deal) who was put on this case back in 2010 and has been traveling to Uganda to investigate the case ever since. Although we stopped attending the trial at the end of that week, it has continued on and off for several more days and is expected to end by August (but who knows what that means in “Uganda Time” – it has already been 5 years since the trial first started and the men have been held in prison ever since).

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