KAMPALA. On June 12, 2015, there was sudden pandemonium at the UPDF base in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. A tin containing ammunition for a 12.7mm anti-aircraft gun had vanished.
Commanders at the base knew they would be in trouble if they failed to account for the missing 85 bullets. And worse, the Ugandan contingent deployed under the African Union Peace-keeping Mission or Amisom would generally be endangered if the ammunitions ended up in the hands of al-Shabaab fighters that they were trying to dislodge from the territory.
Senior UPDF officers paced up and down the base and made several telephone calls. The gunners became the first suspects and were grilled, with military investigators zeroing on Cpl Majibu Ssebyara.
The corporal had been deployed as a gunner in 2014 under UPDF’s Battle Group XIV.
Cpl Ssebyara was arrested one chilly morning on June 12, 2015 by some accounts between 7:30-8:30am that fateful day to begin a journey of being held incommunicado that, after two-and-a-half years, has left him in perpetual pain, bereft of dignity and in a state of erectile dysfunction.
Officially, he was indicted for failing to protect war materials contrary to section 122(1) (2) (g) of the UPDF Act, 2005 an offence which includes misuse or sale of war material and for which the only penalty under the said law is death.
He was detained at Makindye Military Police Barracks, outside Kampala, where he remains squirming in pain after suffering injuries allegedly resulting from gross physical abuse.
In an affidavit in support of an application at the High Court challenging his trial dated August 8, 2016, the soldier recounts how he was “undressed, insulted and tied by the hands on a steel bar, a bag of about 15 kilogrammes tied and hanged on the penis and testicles”. He was then moved to a metallic container, handcuffed for 24 hours and left for days without medical care.
Medical records dated October 6 and November 2, 2015 from Nakasero Hospital and Bombo Military Hospital, respectively, indicate his right testicle had become “smaller than the contralateral (opposite) testis [and] was non-tender” and he has “a chronic right testicular infarction and internal echogenicity with no flow.”
In other words, the weight tied to the genitals of the 33-year-old father of three blocked blood flow to the right testicle, causing tissue decay. Cpl Ssebyara now cannot achieve an erection.
He passes urine and stool with excruciating difficulty, according to his defence attorneys Ivan Mugabi and Isaac Ssemakade.
In his evidence which the court agreed to, Ssebyara narrates that: “I was tied with sisal ropes and told to stand on top of a sack of sand and ordered to put my hands above the head.” The hands were tied up on an overhead metal barrier and the sand was removed, leaving the feet hanging. The corporal said his tormentors insisted he plead guilty to end the torture, an offence for which perpetrators, whether private individuals or government employees, can be held personally liable under the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act, 2012.
By the time he was released from this torture chamber, he slumped to the ground nearly unconscious and was dumped in a cell for days before his condition deteriorated.
On September 2, 2015, he was arraigned before the General Court Martial in criminal case UPDF/GCM/15/2015 (Uganda versus RA/145680 Corporal Majibu Ssebyara) and charged with failing to protect war material.
He denied the charge and was remanded at Makindye Military Police barracks. He filed a complaint with the UPDF Director for Special Investigations Bureau and continues to await feedback months later.
His plight, for now, appears ignored by even the highest military echelons.
Army to investigate
The Defence and Military Spokesman, Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, when contacted last week said the army would investigate the alleged torture of the soldier, but “there must be a reason why the court is holding him”.
“However, torture cannot be occasioned by the UPDF [that] I know,” he said in a short text message (SMS) reply after consultation with the General Court Martial chairman, Lt Gen Andrew Gutti.
In their affidavit dated August 25, 2016 and September 14, 2016 in response to Ssebyara’s submission in court, army witnesses Col Frank Kyambadde, Maj Tom Bbalibya and Maj Raphael Mugisha claim that “the soldier told Maj Bbalimbya and Maj Mpaka [that] he handed the missing ammunition to a Somali citizen.”
The unnamed resident reportedly told UPDF investigators that the detained corporal had asked him for $1,000 (shs3.8million) in exchange for the bullets, but when he said he did not have the cash; Cpl Ssebyara dug a hole in which he buried the ammunition. The officers claimed to have video evidence, but they did not tender it in court.
In her November 22, 2016 judgement on the case, High Court Judge Patricia Basaza Wasswa declared the corporal’s trial by the military court as “illegal, null and void” and issued a permanent order staying the proceedings in criminal case number UPDF/GCM/15/2015. She also ordered that the military court, which the Supreme Court in Constitutional Appeal number 3 of 2005 (Attorney General Vs Joseph Tumushabe) ruled was subordinate to the High Court, discharge the soldier and never to use evidence obtained through torture against him.
Accepting Ssebyara’s account of torture was valid, the judge reminded the army that on September 29, 2015, the then GCM chairman Levi Karuhanga, who died in April this year, had in a bail application ruling admitted that Cpl Ssebyara “suffered from a medical condition that needs him to access urgent medical attention”.
The soldier’s lawyers are stuck with the High Court order which the army declined to honour as the victim’s condition continues to deteriorate.
“His testicles are rotting away. It is a disaster and we are frustrated with the army’s conduct,” Mr Mugabi, one of his lawyers, told this newspaper last week.
When the defence attorneys threatened to sue UPDF for contempt of court, the General Court Martial on December 12 instead charged Cpl Ssebyara afresh, this time with “offences relating to security” contrary to section 130(1)(a) of the UPDF Act, which also attracts death on conviction.
The medical report
Medical records dated October 6 and November 2, 2015 from Nakasero Hospital and Bombo Military Hospital, respectively, indicate that Ssebyara’s right testicle had become “smaller than the contralateral (opposite) testis [and] was non-tender” and he has “a chronic right testicular infarction and internal echogenicity with no flow.”
©Alleastafrica and Daily Monitor