Ugandans were shocked this week to hear that the US State Department had issued a statement implicating four local lawyers – two attorneys and two judges – in an international adoption scam.
In his formal announcement, secretary of state Michael Pompeo, explained that financial sanctions and visa restrictions had been imposed on the four Ugandans ‘for their involvement in activities that victimized young children in a corrupt adoption scheme.’
He named the four as Judges Moses Mukiibi and Wilson Musalu Musene, along with Ugandan lawyer Dorah Mirembe and her associate Patrick Ecobu. The two judges were particularly named for further targeting ‘due to their involvement in significant corruption.’
According to the Pompeo statement, Mirembe and Ecobu ‘facilitated bribes to Ugandan judges and other Ugandan government officials to fraudulently procure adoption cases.’
Mirembe ‘paid bribes to get cases steered to judges Mukiibi and Musene.’ As the two judges are ‘current or former government officials who have … engaged in significant corruption’, neither they nor their families will be allow entry into the US.
Pompeo said the actions of naming the Ugandans involved and listing the sanctions against them showed US commitment to protecting the dignity ‘of every human being’. The actions of the four had resulted ‘in the submission of false documentation to the Department of State … a falsification the Department will not tolerate.’
A companion statement by the US Department of the Treasury, noted that the office of foreign assets control (OFAC) had sanctioned the four Ugandans. ‘Deceiving innocent Ugandan families into giving up their children for adoption has caused great suffering,’ said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, Justin Muzinich.
The statement continued: ‘The individuals involved in this corrupt scam deliberately exploited the good faith of Ugandans and American to enrich themselves. the US remains committed to seeking out and exposing individuals violating human rights across the world.’
Explaining how the scam worked, the treasury department statement said young children were ‘removed’ from Ugandan families, having been promised ‘special education’ programmes and study in the US. Subsequently, however, they were ‘offered to US families for adoption’.
The treasury department added that Mirembe’s law firm had hired people to ‘seek out vulnerable families in remote Ugandan villages’ where they would ‘manipulate’ the parents, who were often unable to read or write English, into giving up their children for adoption, under false pretences.
They were told that they would be moved to Kampala where missionaries would look after and educate them. Taken from their homes, however, they were put into an unlicenced children’s home, ‘and many were made to appear before courts as though they were orphans. Unwitting American prospective adoptive parents would then arrive n Uganda to adopt the children and bring them back to America.’
Mirembe and Ecobu facilitated ‘multiple bribes’ to the two judges and other Uganda officials. Mirembe ‘had negotiated with Musene a flat fee for processing adoption cases.’
‘In at least one case, Mirembe met directly with Musene to arrange an additional amount of money required for Musene to expedite the date of a pending adoption case on Musene’s court calendar.
‘Following Musene’s transfer to a different court division, Mirembe arranged to get cases steered to Mukiibi, to whom at least one individual paid cash bribes at the direction of Mirembe.’
The Global Magnitsky Act used to name and sanction the four Ugandans, allows the US government to punish officials of foreign government implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world, for example by way of preventing them from entering the US, and ‘naming’ them publicly as rights’ violators.
In its report on the scandal the Ugandan news agency, ChimpReports, commented that ‘the judiciary is considered one of the most corrupt institutions in Uganda’, but did not explain its comment further.
Judge Mukiibi, who retired last year, had been the head of the International Crimes Division of the high court. The US had earlier imposed similar sanctions on a former inspector general of police, according to other news reports, although this does not appear to relate to the same issue of illegal adoptions.
NTV reported that Judge Musene, who is still an active member of the bench said he ‘was not aware’ of the bribery allegations ‘and was hearing of them for the first time’.
The Uganda Law Society president, Simon Peter Kinobe, says his organisation has written to the law council to take disciplinary action against those implicated. Anyone found to be ‘culpable’ would be disbarred and prosecuted, he said. The NTV report also quoted a spokesman for the judiciary as saying the judiciary ‘had been aware of the matter for quite some time’ and that ‘they will continue to engage with all the parties’.
Ugandan human rights lawyer, Nicolas Opiyo, said steps to curb corruption were welcome.
“What I think is happening is the result of long-term commitment on the part of people in the US and in Uganda, to hold individuals to account who are involved in ‘grave and gross corruption and abuse of human rights’.
‘I think that this will not be the end. There are many other individuals under investigation, and I hope that they too can be brought to justice quickly.’
Opiyo told Justice in Africa that allegations related to the scam now disclosed by the US state department ‘have been swirling around for a long time … and it has been a public secret.’
He expected that the serving judge (Judge Musene) ‘would be placed on leave of some sort’ until the matter had been properly investigated. He also explained that the Principal Judge had already sent out a new circular on inter-country adoption that will centralise hearings of such cases in Kampala, thus making adoption scams of any sort far more difficult.