- The Constitutional Court has, in a landmark judgment, ruled that jail sentences that are above 20 years are not backed by law.
Likewise, in a unanimous decision, the court quashed the earlier Supreme Court interpretation that had held that life imprisonment means one being jailed for the rest of their natural life.
“Sentences of between 21 and 73 years presented by the petitioners do not have any enabling legislation, prescribing such penalties is breach of articles 28 (8) and 12 of the Constitution,” ruled Justice Christopher Madrama Izama, who wrote the lead decision.
He added: “Sentences of between 21 years and 73 years’ imprisonment imposed severely on the petitioners by the courts, which sentenced them as such, will be deemed to be sentences of 20 years’ imprisonment.”
The other justices included Fredrick Egonda Ntende, Muzamiru Kibeedi, Monica Mugenyi and Christopher Gashirabake. The justices also held that any order by a court of law that imprisonment would be served without earning a remission by a prisoner interferes with the doctrine of separation of powers and is without jurisdiction.
The ruling of the court arose from a petition filed by close to 600 prisoners in 2019. Core to their petition was that sentencing guidelines issued by then Chief Justice under legal notice no. 8 of 2013, were contrary to legislative principle of presumption against deprivation of liberty and in contravention of article 28 (12) of the Constitution.
They argued that the sentencing guidelines are unconstitutional to the extent that they create a legal regime of minimum sentences not legislated by Parliament and introduced long-term sentences in excess of 20 years, not intended or legislated by Parliament.
“Life imprisonment or imprisonment for life in Uganda has the meaning ascribed to it by the sovereign Parliament of Uganda under Section 86 (2) of the Prisons Act, 2006, which statutory provision is valid law unless and until repealed, amended or suspended by Parliament or declared unconstitutional by court,” the petitioners contended.
The facts of the case are that the lead petitioner, Sunday Muhamudu, 92, was sentenced to life imprisonment having been convicted of mob action.
His other colleagues were serving different sentences ranging from 60 years, 50 years, 49 to 34 years, having been found guilty of committing different offences such as robbery, murder and rape.
“The petitioners averred that they are persons convicted and presently serving life sentences and long-term sentences in excess of 20 years with a vested interest in the rule of law. The 562 other petitioners are listed in an attachment where it is indicated that they are aggrieved by numerous sentences, which include life imprisonment, while others are suffering sentences ranging from 75 years’ imprisonment, 50 years’ imprisonment and so on down to lower sentences of 21 years’ imprisonment,” the court documents read in part.
Their grievances stem from a Supreme Court decision in a case involving Tigo Stephen Vs Uganda on the provisions of Section 47 (6) of the Prisons Act. They said the Supreme Court on May 10, 2011, issued a judgment where it held that imprisonment for life, which is the second severest punishment next to a death sentence, is not defined in the statutes prescribing it.
Further, the Supreme Court held based on persuasive case law that life imprisonment means imprisonment for the natural life of a convict. They also said the decision of the Supreme Court took away the statutory right to remission in the case of a convict sentenced to life imprisonment within the meaning ascribed to life imprisonment by the court.
When contacted last evening, Mr Frank Baine, the spokesperson of the Prisons, said he had not yet read the decision and could not ably comment on whether they will be implementing the decision and have those inmates who have served more than 20 years released.
“I haven’t read the judgment but I want to say that our clients come from court and whatever orders come from there, we implement them as long as they are legitimate. For us, we have no problem. It does not affect our work, as long as people keep producing, we shall always have suspected criminals,” Mr Baine said.