32 Kenyan herders freed from Ugandan prisons re-unite with families

Chairman of the General Court Martial, Brig Gen Freeman Mugabe, set aside the sentence of the trial court. [iStockphoto]

At least 32 Kenyan herders who were serving a 20-year jail term in Ugandan prisons have reunited with their families in Turkana County.

The herders who include seven children, were arrested on April 8, 2023, by the Uganda Defence Forces (UPDF) following a crackdown on illegal firearms in the Karamoja region.

The suspects were charged in the 3DCM Holden at Moroto, Uganda last year, with two counts of illegal possession of firearms and illegal possession of ammunition.

They pleaded guilty to each count and were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment on each count, with the sentences running concurrently.

However, dissatisfied with the decision of the trial court, the 32 appellants, through a team of lawyers led by the Turkana county governor’s legal advisor Ekiru Tulele, appealed to the General Court Martial Holden at Makindye.

The counsels argued that the trial court erred in law and fact when it failed to follow the procedures for trying child offenders and failed to accord a fair hearing to the appellants.

The lawyers submitted that the trial court handed the herders the maximum sentence without considering their mitigation and did not evaluate the evidence properly.

The counsel further prayed that the court be pleased to allow the appeal and acquit the appellants.

Chairman of the General Court Martial, Brig Gen Freeman Mugabe, set aside the sentence of the trial court.

Brig Gen Mugabe noted that there were procedural irregularities that affected the entire trial process even though the appellants pleaded guilty.

He further ruled that the trial court considered all the accused/appellants as adults, whereas medical examination reports indicated that seven were below 18 years old.  

“In the premises, this court finds merits in the appeal and finds that retrial of the appellants will cause them an injustice. This court further finds that considering the one year and thirteen days the appellants spent in lawful custody and the period they spent serving the illegal sentence, there is no need for a retrial. The appellants are hereby set free unless held on other lawful charges,” ruled Brig Gen Mugabe.

This saw the herders walk to freedom and were ferried to be re-integrated with their families in the Urum area along the Kenya-Uganda border.

The colourful event was facilitated by the Turkana County government, which transported the youth to their respective families.

Turkana leaders led by Governor Jeremiah Lomorukai witnessed the reunion of the youth with their families.

There was pomp and colour as families, relatives and friends braved heavy rainfall in Urum village to witness the return of their sons, who had spent one year and some days in Ugandan prisons.

Hundreds of villagers drawn from Lokiriama/ Lorengippi ward trooped to Urum border village to receive them.

Selected spiritual leaders and elders had to perform rituals and cleansing ceremonies to reintegrate the youth into the community, which signified a new life and transformation.

The youths, however, feared speaking to the media due to trauma and language barrier.

A source privy to security says a number of the youth require psychological counselling due to alleged human rights violations while in various prisons.

Governor Lomorukai lauded the release of the youth, saying it is a result of the diverse collaborative efforts between the Kenya and Ugandan governments in the spirit of East African Community protocols.

Lomorukai said they put in a lot of legal efforts and resources to ensure the success of the appeal in securing the release of the Turkana herders from prisons.

He said it also involved diplomatic negotiations with high-profile Ugandan officials to seek their interventions on the matter, adding that they had been frequenting Uganda to pursue justice for the youth.

“I sincerely thank and recognise the goodwill of Kenyan President William Ruto and his Uganda counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, for their intervention on this matter. This would have not been possible without their support,” Lomorukai said.

The governor warned Turkana herders to respect the laws of the neighbouring countries.

“They should respect the laws of the neighbouring states and promote peaceful co-existence with their Ateker community. Those who will disobey the laws should be ready to face consequences,” he warned.  

Turkana Woman Rep Cecilia Ng’itit Ishuu and Loima MP Protus Akujah called for collaborative efforts among leaders to end hostilities among the pastoralists in their common borders.

Akujah, who also petitioned the National Assembly over the arrest of the youth, lauded Kenya and Uganda diplomatic ties for the release of the Turkana herders.

“We appreciate efforts made by the Kenyan and Ugandan governments in considering the plight of Kenyan herders incarcerated in Uganda prisons to free them. The collaborative efforts of both Turkana and Karamoja devolved units had also played a vital role in securing the release of the youth,” he said.

Leaders from Uganda led by MP Kotido Abraham Loki Lokopirmoe called for peaceful co-existence among the Turkana and Karamoja Ateker communities.