It is almost eight months since Justice Musa Ssekana, the head of the Civil Division of the High Court jailed Kampala lawyer Male Mabirizi Hassan Kiwanuka for contempt of court.
Mabirizi, known for his legal activism that has seen him file numerous cases on all manner of issues including social, political, cultural, and economic name it, Mabirizi was condemned to 18 months imprisonment for allegedly disparaging judicial officers who issue judgments he ‘doesn’t agree with’.
Uganda Radio Network-URN found Mabirizi at the Mengo Chief Magistrates Court where one of his many cases was up for hearing. Such cases keep him sane and away from the walls of Luzira Prisons. On average, Mabairizi attends two court hearings every week. Conspicuously physically beaten, Mabirizi insists that his resolve to continue with his activism is as solid as it was eight months ago before his current predicament.
“I’m still very strong and I will continue doing what I’m doing irrespective of what they throw at me,” Mabirizi said. Looking rather pale and malnourished, Mabirizi is almost coming to the conclusion that he might serve out his entire 18-month sentence. He acknowledges that there are a few judicial officials who might want to give him back his freedom. He has had a spat with most of the judges in the High Court, Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitiveness of the matter, two people with direct knowledge about the judiciary told URN that there is a sense of relief that Mabirizi is behind bars. “For quite some time we had been contemplating what to do with Mabirizi. He had become a real problem to many of us. His imprisonment is quite controversial but it has given us some breathing space,” a very senior judicial officer said.
In fact, such sentiments are captured in the ruling of the Court of Appeal that rejected Mabirizi’s application for temporary release pending the hearing of his appeal challenging his conviction and sentence. In their judgment, Justices Muzamiru Kibedi, Irene Mulyagonja, and Eva Luswata implored the Chief Justice to come up with rules that would bar Mabirizi from filing numerous cases in court.
Even when in prison, Mabirizi has continued filing court cases challenging various actions of state actors. For example, he contends that the agreement signed between the Democratic Party’s Norbert Mao and President Yoweri Museveni of NRM is a nullity that should be set aside. Mabirizi also recently filed an application seeking orders to compel Judiciary Secretary Pius Bigirimana to apologize to Justice Dr. Esther Kisakye after the former wrote to the latter to account for the money she has been receiving as salary yet she has not been working.
In his own case, Mabirizi had filed a whooping 12 applications all seeking orders that the court releases him from jail as his application, which the court said he had not yet filed is heard and determined.
“We are also of the view that the filing of numerous applications where no appeal has been filed in this court amounts to an abuse of the court process. The applications are similar to each other, all seeking the same order though using different terms in the various applications, for the release of the contemnor from prison before the filing and hearing of his appeal in this court. The applications appear to us to be intended, if not to intimidate the respondent than to exert pressure on him to agree that the contemnor be released from prison…It amounted to an abuse of court process because at most, two substantive applications could have been filed on the basis of the orders that were issued against the contemnor by the High Court…The Registrar of this court had to source for a special panel to entertain the contemnor’s applications before this court because he has made it his habit to strike at all judicial officers who do not come up with the decisions that he desires as corrupt or biased against him,” the ruling issued in July reads in part.
“He has severally filed complaints against judicial officers before the Judicial Service Commission. He also files applications for judicial officers to recuse themselves from hearing his suits in the various courts so frequently that he is about to exhaust the limited reserves of this court. We are therefore of the well-considered opinion that the Chief Justice should consider the gravity of this matter and make rules under the Civil Procedure Act to provide for restrictions on litigation by vexatious litigants. Implementation of such rules would go a long way to save the time of the courts as well as to spare the limited resources that the Judiciary has to implement its mandate of ensuring access to justice to all citizens,” the judges observed.
By putting this in writing, it is clear to all and sundry that many judges no longer want Mabirizi in their courts. “I have exposed them; many of them thought they are infallible but they are not. They must know that they are vested with a responsibility that they must dispose of. I need not be their friend for them to serve me justice. They swore an oath to serve justice to all manner of people regardless of how they think about them. So, I can tell you, I will continue filing my cases in court and they have no option but to hear them. And they will not intimidate me into silence. If a believe a judicial officer has failed to do their job or they are corrupt, I will say it and actually ask them to recuse,” Mabirizi said.
Asked about the same ruling which implored him to apologize to Ssekaana if he needs to be released, Mabirizi said, he would only do that over his dead body.“I knew what I was getting myself into and as long as I’m doing the right thing, no one will intimidate me. They issue ridiculous rulings so that we back off or run into exile but I will do none. I’m going to continue to challenge my imprisonment up to the Supreme Court. All the courts must pronounce themselves on this matter and even if I lose, I’m ready to serve out all my sentence other than apologizing to Ssekaana because I did nothing wrong. He sentenced me to prison without even being heard. How can I then turn around and apologize when illegality was committed,” Mabirizi said.
Justice Ssekaana found Mabirizi guilty of contempt of court after allegedly using his social media to attack him for his earlier judgment in which he fined him UGX 300million for attacking another judicial officer, judge Philip Odoki. The case was brought to the attention of Ssekaana by the Attorney General who reasoned that even after he was seriously warned against attacking judicial officers who issue judgments he doesn’t like, he went ahead and attacked Ssekaana for his judicial work.
“The said abusive attacks in the letters and tweets by the respondent are intended. to scandalize the court and intimidate the entire judiciary in the exercise of their constitutional mandate. The strong warning given to the respondent in addition to the fine of Ugx 300million was intended to send a strong signal against such attacks on judicial officers. Court orders are not made in vain and are intended to secure 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 by obeying orders of the court. The country will descend into anarchy if such a culture of disobeying lawful court orders is allowed to flourish,” Ssekaana’s ruling reads in part.