Ugandan lawyer, serving time for contempt, loses bid for bail release

A Ugandan lawyer with a reputation for strongly criticising judges and demanding the recusal of those presiding in cases where he is involved, has lost his bid to be freed from prison pending an appeal. The lawyer, Male Mabirizi (pictured), was sentenced to an 18-month jail term for contempt of court by a high court judge whom he repeatedly slandered and pilloried. Though he sought release from prison pending an appeal, he had not yet filed any appeal and so the appeal court judges turned him down.

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There can be few Ugandan court-watchers who haven’t heard of Male Mabirizi. Now his antics, plus a recent decision of the East African Court of Justice against him, have brought Mabirizi even wider attention.

He has a law degree, but has not been admitted to practice. Nevertheless, he appears for himself in one legal action after another, most often unsuccessfully.

His modus operandi includes filing a string of applications – 12 in the most recent matter alone – around an issue he is litigating, attacking the question from every possible angle. He is also known to demand the recusal of virtually all the judges before whom he appears, claiming they are biased against him and incapable of hearing him impartially.

Cowardly

Most recently, he lodged an application for Judge Musa Ssekaana to recuse himself from a case involving Mabirizi that was pending before him.

In January, Mabirizi was given a fine of UGX 300 000 000 and a strong warning to stop attacking judicial officers. But he ignored that warning and posted a number of posts on Twitter, actions that soon brought him to the attention of the courts once again.

What did he say this time? He wrote to the Uganda Judicial Officers’ Association, saying that he intended to sue Judge Ssekaana, in these terms: ‘It is unfortunate that COWARDLY Judge Ssekaana Musa who is facing disciplinary actions in Judicial Service Commission for purposes of having him removed from office has resorted to using your office to resolve his personal unethical challenges. You ought not to have allowed your association to be misused. Let Ssekaana carry his own cross until when he is removed from office.’

Mental check-up

This was followed by a tweet reading, ‘Ssekaana is a disgrace’. On the same day he tweeted that the judge was ‘not fit to even sit in a small family tribunal’. And later that day he tweeted criticism of an award given to the judge, saying he was ‘extremely unethical & incompetent even to win a magistrate Grade 2 award’.

Next day he tweeted that the judge needed a ‘mental check-up’ and the day after that he wrote that the judge ‘lacks courage to do justice without fear & favour, is biased, suffers from the vice of self-interest, is tardy, indolent and incompetent … is a danger to the state and society.’

Much followed in the same vein, but he reached new levels of crudity when he tweeted that the judge ‘has either a small brain or a small penis’ along with more along similarly crude lines.

Scandalise

These comments were brought to the attention of the court by the attorney general who said Mabirizi’s contempt needed to be stopped.

In his finding on that petition, Judge Ssekaana said the abusive attacks in Mabirizi’s letters and tweets were intended to scandalise the court ‘and intimidate the entire judiciary in exercise of their constitutional mandate’.

Mabirizi had been given a strong warning and a fine that were intended to ‘send a strong signal against such attacks on judicial officers.’

Anarchy

The judge added, ‘Court orders are not made in vain and are intended to serve the purpose for which they are issued. However “stupid” or “useless” an order may appear, it must be obeyed. This is a country of laws, not of men, and we must uphold the rule of law through obeying orders of court. The country will descend into anarchy if such a culture of disobeying lawful court orders is allowed to flourish.’

But, said the judge, despite these warnings, Mabirizi had continued to make ‘relentless attacks on judicial officers and the entire judiciary with the sole purpose of undermining its authority.’

As the result of an order dated 15 February, Mabirizi was arrested and imprisoned for contempt for 18 months.

Petition

His next step was to petition that he be allowed out of prison pending an appeal. The trouble was, however, that at the time he brought this petition he had not yet filed his appeal.

The three appeal court judges who heard his petition to be allowed out of jail pending an appeal, had first to deal with the problem that Mabirizi had not yet actually filed his appeal.

The court also pointed out that it had stayed the hearing of nine other applications by Mabirizi, apart from the 12 filed in relation to his bid to be released from prison pending an appeal and that it had done do because the appeal judges strongly believed that they ‘stand no chances of success at all’.

Abuse

The judges said that this filing of multiple applications amounted to an abuse of court, and seemed intended to intimidate the attorney general or to exert pressure on him to agree to release Mabirizi from prison.

They added that Uganda’s court rules allowed for the striking out of pleadings held to be frivolous or vexatious, but did not deal with those who were ‘habitual litigants’ and who filed cases ‘accompanied by numerous applications and clog the diaries of the courts and judicial officers.’

In this case, the registrar had struggled to establish a special panel to consider Mabirizi’s application because he had ‘made it his habit to strike at all judicial officers who do not come up with the decisions he desires, as corrupt or biased against him.’ He had filed complaints about judges to the Judicial Service Commission and filed recusal applications so often ‘that he is about to exhaust the limited reserves of this court.’

Gravity

The judges then urged that the Chief Justice should act, considering ‘the gravity of this matter’ and make rules under the Civil Procedure Act to restrict vexatious litigants. This would save the courts’ time and resources, they said.

The appeal judges concluded that the application for release pending appeal had no merit. This was because the only grounds on which Mabirizi could be released was on application for bail pending appeal (which he had not made) or the pardon of the court that committed him for criminal contempt.

They therefore ordered that he had to continue serving his 18-month sentence; that he could apply for bail pending appeal after he had filed such an appeal application, and that he was free to ‘seek the pardon of the court that committed him to prison.’

That judgment was delivered late August, but there have so far been no reports that Mabirizi was planning to seek Judge Ssekaana’s pardon.

  • ‘A Matter of Justice’, Legalbrief, 30 August 2022

 

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