The Deputy Chief Justice, Richard Buteera, presided over a Criminal Appeals session at the Masaka High Court.
The scientific session started with a briefing session of the appellants at Masaka Main Prison. Justice Buteera led the panel of three other Justices, advocates and other stakeholders in the criminal justice system.
The DCJ informed the appellants that the main purpose of the visit was to explain to them the shift from the traditional physical appearance of the appellants before their lordships. He explained that submissions by appellants or their advocates, responses by the State and submissions in rejoinder were all on record.
He added that the court appearances were mainly for the advocates to highlight the submissions earlier filed so that the Court could later write and deliver judgments.
He notified the stakeholders that the Court of Appeal has only 14 justices, who were few compared to the workload they handle. Adding that the Judiciary management was in consultation with the Executive and Parliament to ensure that there are regional courts of appeal to handle the ever-increasing appeals.
“Our cry is to have regional courts to handle these sessions. This will make it easier to handle these cases, and it will also reduce delays in the management of appeals.” The plan is to have a Court of Appeal in Masaka, Mubende, Gulu, Mbale, Mbarara, and Jinja to start before rolling it out to other regions.
The Deputy Chief Justice noted that the method of procedure by way of video conferencing was the best in the circumstances amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.
The head of panel, Justice Cheborion Barishaki, on behalf of Judges Stephen Musota and Muzamiru Kibeedi, reassured the appellants that they are committed to delivering judgments within 60 days upon closure of the session.
He added that 41 appeals would be heard and determined. Of these, 22 are Aggravated Defilement, 14 for Murder, four for Aggravated Robbery and one for Rape.
Justice Barishaki observed that as rape cases go down, the ones against Aggravated Defilement were going up, which was not pleasant. He pointed out that the Masaka session had delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other constraints.
One of the appellants, Mbazira Joseph Bob, thanked the panel for the planned session but raised some concerns. These included the fact that court proceedings and judgments are not availed to appellants on time and that cause listing at times does not follow the first in, first out strategy.
The DCJ said the Judiciary, alongside its JLOS partners such as the Office of the Directorate of Public Prosecution and Prisons, was adopting a joint-cause listing process to ensure that the cases cause-listed follow the principle of first in and first out.
On her part, the Masaka Resident Judge, Victoria Nkwanga Katamba, welcomed the Session. She added that the workload at court is quite high, and through their prison visits, they have established that prison capacity is overwhelmed. She expressed gratitude for the session and undertook to use innovations such as sessions, Plea Bargaining and weeding out to reduce the congestion.
In his brief, the Officer in Charge of Masaka Main Prison, Deogratius Ogwabit, stated that although the prison capacity is 252 inmates, it was now accommodating 1,288 prisoners. Of this number, 1,209 are males while 79 are female. A total of 589 accused persons are committed to the High Court for trial. The prison also had 52 appellants, of whom 41 had been cause-listed for hearing in the ongoing session.
Mr Ogwabit expressed gratitude for such sessions, which would help with decongestion in prison.
Eight matters were cause-listed for the first day of hearings which the DCJ participated in. The appellants followed the proceedings from a dedicated computer room at the prison via video conferencing.
Among the eight handled was Joseph Kikomeko, who was seeking court intervention to quash his conviction for Aggravated Defilement. Kikomeko was convicted by the High Court in 2016 and sentenced to 20 years in jail. However, Court heard that the appellant had been killed by an angry mob in his village where he was hiding after prison. After getting confirmation of those facts from the prison authorities, the matter abated.
In another matter, Walakira Lazaro, who is serving a life sentence for rape, asked the court to ensure that the time he spent on remand is deducted as the trial court had not considered when handing him the sentence.