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To protect the rights of angels, we must be willing to defend even those of the devils
Daniel Kalinaki
Posted: 3 weeks 1 day

A senior police officer, notorious for alleged torture, kidnap, extortion and all manner of vice, is arrested, detained without trial for far longer than the statutory 48 hours, then charged in a military court – ordinarily the preserve of serving army officers.

Another top cop and once one of the poster boys of the no-nonsense, regime-enforcing force, watches in terror as his fellow officers cut through his front door to forcibly arrest him, then surrenders, to internal disciplinary measures and perhaps fate.

A newspaper with friends in high places is arbitrarily shut down for two months. A journalist said to enjoy a hand-in-glove relationship with the security agencies is kidnapped at high noon outside the government-owned newspaper he works for, held for several days without trial, then released without charge.

What are we to do when people accused of or known to have infringed on the rights of others have their own rights abused and liberties taken away? This is an age-old moral dilemma.

The natural response is one of schadenfreude: There is, after all, plenty of poetic justice in Grace Ibingira falling victim, in 1966, to his law permitting detention without trial; or in police citing the Public Order Management Act in breaking up Amama Mbabazi’s rallies in the 2016 elections.

But it is not enough for us to merely chronicle we-told-you-so anecdotes of those who live by the sword dying by the sword. Tyranny has an inexhaustible supply of desperados and busy bodies willing to ride the tiger; cheering on and hoping we are eaten last is not a sustainable strategy.

A crucial first step is to recognise and acknowledge the inherent and inalienable nature of certain rights, like those laid out in chapter four of our Constitution. Some – such as the right to life, liberty or equality under the law – are inherent and not granted by the State. Others, such as the right to privacy, a fair trial, free speech and association must be defended by the State and by citizens.

As difficult as it is to countenance, the defence of these rights must be absolute. One need not hold a party card or belong to a certain tribe or gender to have them upheld. In fact, in some cases, those who have done the most to undermine them are most deserving of these protections, to drive the lesson home.

In his seminal judgment in the ruling that struck down the offence of publication of false news, the late Supreme Court Justice Joseph Mulenga, noted that protection of the freedoms of expression and speech were important not merely for those who said what we want to hear, but particularly for those who say what we dislike or disagree with.

As with violators falling victim, defenders need not be beneficiaries. DP’s Kawanga Ssemogerere and Zachary Olum, in proving the unconstitutionality of the one-party Movement system, opened the door to political pluralism, and gave NRM cadres like Kizza Besigye, Bidandi Ssali and Mbabazi get-out-of-jail cards to run for president. Besigye, in challenging his trial in the General Court Martial, sought to ensure that all civilians, not merely he and his co-accused, are not subjected to military law.

That Abdallah Kitatta, one of his most virulent persecutors, now faces trial in the GCM while Besigye is a (relatively) free man is a matter of irony and evidence of our failure to learn from history.

Many who defended Besigye’s right to bail did not do so out of partisan support or mere altruism, but out of self-interest – a point one imagines Nixon Agasirwe, a man who used to roll the dice and feel the fear in his enemies eyes, and who now is just a puppet on a lonely string, has had plenty of time to reflect upon.

We do not speak out against Charles Etukuri’s ‘kidnap’ because we are blind to his security shenanigans, but because of Rev Isaac Bakka being held incommunicado for four months, and because who knows if next they come for poor Barbara Kaija or Carol Beyanga?

If democracy – governing with the consent of the governed – is a destination, the rule of law is the journey. It is long and perilous, requiring steadfastness and resolve and an unwavering willingness to take body blows in order to impose restrictions on the ability of those in power to make arbitrary decisions against the greater good.

The real or perceived innocence of the suspect should not determine whether or not they enjoy their rights, and any restrictions to such enjoyment must be demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society. This is the thankless point we have been making for decades – and it is a lesson those who justify tyranny today ought to remember tomorrow.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.

Twitter: @Kalinaki.