Country Listing

Uganda Table of Contents



When Britain assumed control of Uganda, the judicial system consisted of a number of local authorities, tribal chiefs, and kin group elders, who worked primarily to enforce local customary law. Islamic law was also practiced in areas of northern Uganda. During the twentieth century, British jurisprudence was gradually imposed, spreading more quickly across the south than the north. At independence the resulting legal system consisted of the High Court, which heard cases involving murder, rape, treason, and other crimes punishable by death or life imprisonment; and subordinate magistrates' courts, which tried cases for crimes punishable by shorter terms of imprisonment, fines, or whipping. Magistrates' court decisions could be appealed to the High Court. All courts had the privilege of rendering "competent verdicts," whereby a person accused of one offense could also be convicted of a minor, related offense.

After independence the director of public prosecutions (DPP), appointed by the president, prosecuted criminal cases. Under the attorney general's direction, the DPP initiated and conducted criminal proceedings other than courts-martial. The DPP also could appoint a public prosecutor for a specific case. In some cases, a police official was the prosecutor, and the DPP reviewed and commented on the trial proceedings.

The legal system virtually broke down during the 1970s, in part because Amin undermined the judicial system when it attempted to oppose him. In March 1971, for example, when Amin granted the security forces the right to "search and arrest," they implemented the decree to harass political opponents. The courts were then blocked from rendering verdicts against security agents through a second decree granting government officials immunity from prosecution. By absolving soldiers and police of any legal accountability, Amin unleashed a reign of terror on the civilian population that lasted eight years.

The end of Amin's regime brought no significant improvement in the criminal justice system. In an effort to reassert the rule of law, in June 1984 the government prohibited the army from arresting civilians suspected of opposition to the government, and it allowed prisoners, for the first time in over a decade, to appeal to the government for their release from prison. The army ignored the 1984 law, however, and continued to perpetrate crimes against the civilian population.

When Museveni became president in 1986, he pledged to end the army's tyranny and reform the country's criminal justice system (see Judicial System, ch. 4). He succeeded in granting greater autonomy to the courts, but the NRA also arrested several thousand suspected opponents during counterinsurgency operations in northern and eastern Uganda. In late 1988, the NRC passed a constitutional amendment giving the president the power to declare any region of the country to be in a "state of insurgency." Subsequent legislation allowed the government to establish separate courts in these areas, authorized the military to arrest insurgents, permitted magistrates to suspend the rules of evidence to allow hearsay and uncorroborated evidence in the courtroom, and shifted the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused.

Data as of December 1990