An announcement by the Uganda Prisons Service that 13 convicted prisoners have been pardoned and released has caused great concern to a number of organisations working on issues affecting women and children.

That’s because 11 of the 13 prisoners being released were convicted of defilement (rape of a minor).

The announcement, made last week, notes that the 13 were pardoned by Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, ‘on public health and humanitarian grounds’.

Of the two released prisoners among the 13 who had not been convicted of defilement, one was convicted of ‘causing financial loss’ and had been sentenced to 12 years, and the other of manslaughter, with a sentence of six years.

All the rest were convicted of defilement and sentenced to jail terms of between 20 years and three years.

‘Vital component’

In their reaction

to news of the pardon, the 14 civil society organisations acknowledged that the prerogative of mercy was a ‘vital component’ of the justice system. This was because it allowed the exercise of compassion and forgiveness ‘in exceptionally deserving cases’.

However, the most recent presidential pardons caused the group some concern, since such a high proportion – 11 out of the 13 released, or 85 % – had been convicted of defilement.

‘This decision has left anguish, pain and confusion amongst the women’s movement of Uganda,’ they said. The list raised questions about how much concern was being shown to the harrowing experience of victims of sexual offences. It also raised questions about the way the Ugandan government was upholding the principles of justice, fairness and equity for all, ‘especially its children’, they said.

‘We share concerns about this [release list] being tone deaf to the current lived realities of many girls and women in Uganda, who are the biggest victims of this offence.’

‘Stark contrast’

In their view, the decision ‘stands in stark contrast to the fundamental responsibility of a just and compassionate society to support and advocate for the rights of victims of sexual violence. It is a betrayal of the trust that survivors place in the legal system and sends a chilling message to survivors that their trauma and suffering are being trivialised and ignored.’

The organisations list the statistics related to defilement cases and the prevalence of sexual violence in Uganda. Figures from June 2023 showed that 27% of those giving birth in hospital are ‘children’, and few perpetrators were brought to justice, they said.

They said they were afraid that the decisions about who to release would lead to a ‘further lack of faith in the criminal justice [system] for victims of sexual violence.’

‘Undermining the judicial system’

The organisations also claimed that the list of those chosen for release had the effect of ‘undermining the collective efforts of the judicial system’ as well as the efforts of those organisations working for the rights of women and children.

Among the problems that they said would be worsened by the pardons granted was the difficulty of negotiating ‘girls’ dignity and justice’. They said that because of the social stigma still associated with sexual violence, many families chose to stay silent when a child is raped or to ‘settle the case informally’.

‘Perpetrators pay compensation, or sometimes even end up negotiating to marry their victim, rather than face charges. This in turn increases the instances of another violation of children’s rights’, namely child marriage, which further negatively impacts on girls.

Shared responsibility

‘We reiterate the need for all of us to view violence prevention as a shared responsibility that requires a delicate balance between rehabilitation and ensuring the safety of our communities, especially when addressing offences against vulnerable populations like girls and women.

‘Granting mercy to individuals convicted of child sexual offences demands careful consideration of the potential risks and consequences lest we derail all efforts in achieving critical national aspirations’ like gender equality and reducing inequalities.  

The organisations urged that the authorities should thoroughly review the criteria and processes involved in recommendations for pardons. ‘Transparency in decision-making and a commitment to prioritising the safety of children are essential in maintaining public confidence in the justice system.’

Decision should be reviewed

They also demanded the review of the decision and appealed to the president, Yoweri Museveni, to ‘direct that all possible impacts are mitigated, including reaching out to the victims involved.’

‘We call upon our leaders, the attorney general and other institutions who table pardon recommendations to the presidency, to prioritise the welfare and rights of survivors of sexual violence.’

Questioned by the media about the number of those released who had defilement convictions, Uganda’s attorney general, Kiryowa Kiwanuka, explained the basis on which the choice was made of which prisoners to recommend for release.

‘Romantic relationships’

Asked, in a television interview, about concerns that so many of those pardoned had been convicted of defilement, he said that where a case had been ‘grave’ and ‘personal’ the committee ‘tried to reach out’ to the victims.

‘In this particular cycle, there were many cases of defilement which we needed to look at separately. For example, in some of these cases, the person who was convicted of defilement was 16, 17 at the time of committing the offence. But he was having a romantic relationship with a girl who is probably 15, or 17.

‘Some of them you find that the boy in that romantic relationship impregnated a girl who was about the same age. It was just really romantic. By the letter of the law, it is actually defilement. But this person is sad, he’s remorseful. So those are the kind of cases that we consider.’