Ugandan court rules crackdown on public gatherings unconstitutional


The Constitutional Court on Friday ruled that the police have no powers to stop or disperse public gatherings as it annulled the contentious Section 8 of the Public Order Management Act (POMA).

In a majority decision of the court of 4:1, the court observed that POMA contravenes several provisions of the Constitution that warrant freedom of assembly to its citizens in a democratic society.

“It is only in undemocratic and authoritarian regimes that peaceful protests and public gatherings of a political nature are not tolerated,” said Justice Cheborion Barishaki in a ruling on Thursday.

“I wholly reject the notion that the police have supernatural powers to determine that particular public gathering shouldn’t be allowed to happen because it will result in a breach of peace,” he said.

The verdict of the court comes as good news mainly to the Opposition politicians, whose gatherings as they prepare for the 2021 General Election, have always been dispersed by the police basing on the same law.

The challenge to the law was brought by three human rights groups, opposition legislators and a retired bishop in December 2013. Similar provisions to those in the act were contained in a previous law that was declared unconstitutional in 2005.

Barishaki said it “defies logic as to why parliament would rush to pass an act of parliament containing provisions that are parimateria [the same]with those that were declared unconstitutional”.

The police used the law to brutally disperse rallies organised by opposition politician Kizza Besigye in the lead-up to the 2016 elections, and more recently to block meetings and concerts by pop star turned politician Bobi Wine.

Dr. Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, welcomed the ruling, saying it had been “an obstacle to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly in Uganda”.

“Granting unfettered powers to police to deny, disperse and block meetings had a chilling effect on the democratic rights of Ugandans, particularly the political opposition, human rights defenders and activists,” he said.

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for east and southern Africa, said the law had been used as a tool of repression.

“Under this law police have brutally dispersed spontaneous demonstrations and opposition rallies, while opposition politicians have been beaten up and arrested simply for exercising their rights,” she said, adding that Ugandan lawmakers must now repeal the entire act, which contradicted the constitution, ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

In January, police arrested Wine and fired teargas at his supporters when he tried to hold a rally to mark his 2021 presidential bid.

Since he became a legislator in 2017, Wine has rattled Ugandan authorities, who see him as a threat to President Yoweri Museveni. Museveni has been in power since 1986. (Source: The Guardian)