SEPTEMBER 22, 2010: Uproar Over New Law On Public Gatherings

Uproar Over New Law On Public Gatherings

SOURCE: The Monitor

By Sheila Naturinda

Outrage at the proposed Public Order Management Bill was mounting yesterday with civil society, the opposition and human rights defenders attacking the government for trying to enact a law to reverse a Constitutional Court ruling and further limit civil liberties.

The uproar comes against the backdrop of Monday's suspension by Metropolitan Police chief Andrew Sorowen-citing the threat of terrorism - on gatherings involving more than five people unless sanctioned by the Inspector General of Police.


But critics say the Sorowen pronouncements were intended to skirt around Article 92 of the Constitution which prohibits Parliament from passing any law "... to alter the decision or judgement of any court as between the parties to the decision or judgment".

In 2008, a Constitutional Court ruling in the case of Muwanga Kivumbi v. The Attorney General of Uganda (Constitutional Petition No. 9/05); the Court ruled that section 32 of the Police Act unjustifiably limited the rights to freedoms of assembly and association prescribed in the Ugandan Constitution.

The section gave unilateral powers to the Inspector General of Police to prohibit any assembly or procession where he believed that it was likely to cause a breach of the peace. Court, however, noted that these powers were "prohibitive" rather than "regulatory". Senior constitutional court lawyer Wandera Ogalo yesterday told Daily Monitor that "whatever they are trying to do is still evident in the Muwanga Kivumbi case. It will face the same fate before the same court."

Mr Ogalo, who is also an MP in the East African Legislative Assembly, said, "These are symptoms of a failed force that doesn't respect the Constitution ... Should we seek permission from the IGP to die?" Kampala Central MP Erias Lukwago suggested that in its current form, this Bill would put Parliament on trial because of the provisions of Article 92. "This is their long time desire to make Uganda a police state by allocating [the IGP] powers over weddings and funerals," Mr Lukwago said.

Ms Sheila Muwanga of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative observed that it is "suspicious that such a Bill is coming prior to elections in February 2011," echoing fears that the ruling National Resistance Movement government wants to make it very hard for its opponents to rally support.

"It reinstates articles in the Police Act which were already nullified by the Constitutional Court in 2008," she said.

Days ago, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Ms Margaret Sekaggya, also former chair of Uganda's Human Rights Commission--along with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International denounced the proposed law, which they all said amounted to the unconstitutional re-introduction of an unconstitutional law which violated freedom of peaceful assembly and expression.

Amnesty International reminded the government of Uganda of its obligation under the UN's Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights regarding the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. If passed, the law will allow the Police chief to "regulate the conduct of public meetings" so as to "safeguard public order and related matters". The security chiefs say it is because of the July 11 terror attacks that public assemblies are to be regulated.

But Mr Peter Walubiri, another senior lawyer and member of the UPC last night said: "Security is being used as a cover to suppress opposition activities during the elections. There shouldn't be any excuse to hamper peoples' rights." He was joined in holding this view by human rights lawyer Laudislaus Rwakafuuzi, who said " it is very unfortunate that the State is becoming fearful of its own people and increasingly getting undemocratic."

"The fear is that when many people gather, they discuss governance. They shouldn't talk about security matters because the Bill is [dated] 2009 yet the suspected attacks were in 2010. So it means it has been in the offing for long," he said. Mr Rwakafuuzi said with the 2008 reduction of powers of police in respect of public assemblies by the Constitutional Court, "government is re-introducing the same unconstitutional law in many different words."

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