“It was a chilly morning that day. I woke up early ready to go to work. I had just left Emily sleeping when I was surrounded and arrested.”
Simon Okumu, a police officer from Nwoya district in northern Uganda, recounts the moment his freedom was stripped from beneath him while his wife slept.
In Uganda, prisons are overcrowded and under-resourced. Suspects are detained in prison almost automatically once they are arrested. Many, like Simon, are swept up in the broken system.
Unjustly targeted, without a fair trial.
As a single 38-year-old, Simon decided he wanted to settle down and start a family. He met Emily and they moved in together.
In the African setting, marriage is a union of families. Parents and other relatives directly influence the relationship choices of their young adults. Simon didn’t know that Emily’s aunt didn’t approve of their relationship. She had a different choice of man in mind for Emily.
“My aunty-in-law didn’t want me to marry Simon,” Emily explains. “She had identified another man to marry me. I didn’t like him at all, instead I had liked Simon to be my husband.
“Since she didn’t agree with my choice, she hatched a plan to take my husband to prison, accusing him of defiling me. I told her, I liked Simon and I would not change my heart again. It’s for me to choose whom I should be with, not [for] you to define me a man.”
In Uganda the law defines defilement as “unlawful … sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of eighteen years” and is punishable by life imprisonment or death.
In 2008, Simon was arrested. “The police officers claimed that I had defiled Emily. Emily and I had already lived as husband and wife for three months.” Simon recalls the details of his arrest and the subsequent trial.
“Emily assured me that she was 18 years [old] and all her records could prove it. She had even completed her ordinary level examinations. But the court declined to accept any documents to prove Emily’s age. They only relied on the doctor’s report,” Simon explains.
“For the entire court sessions, Emily’s age was never mentioned. They were only basing [guilt] on my professional work as a policeman and medical report that proved the existence of sexual intercourse between us.”
Emily’s aunt was summoned to attend the court hearing, but as soon as she learned Emily was expecting Simon’s child, she lost interest in the case. Simon surmises that the aunt realised she was causing Emily and her child to suffer, so thought by not attending court to testify against Simon would mean that he would be released.
“She decided not to come to court to testify again but the court ordered for her to be arrested and be brought there,” Simon explains. “She was deceived by some officers that she must testify. [They said:] ‘Do you want Akena to be released?’ She said she wanted me to be released. [They said:] ‘You have already put a case against him, how shall we release him? You come, you say whatever you said before, then we’ll see how to close the file and let your person go.’”
“They were very excited that I’m going away [to prison].”
The aunt was coerced into making the same statement she had made before. Little did she know, if it wasn’t for the forceful police, Simon could have been released.
“The judge had given the statement the day before that if the complainant does not appear, then I will be set free,” Simon explains. “So she didn't know their intention. They just organised with the police to go and arrest her in the early morning.”
After being on remand for two years and eight months, Simon was convicted of aggravated defilement on 6 December 2010. Despite efforts to prove his innocence, Simon’s appeal was never heard.
“For the 13 years I spent in prison, the court declined to hear my appeal, saying that I was a police officer who knew the law well and that I used my powers to seduce my victim,” Simon remembers. “When I was arrested, I left my ATM card with Emily and gave her the pin. I said: ‘Right now I have nothing for you, you have this, survive on it. I don’t know of any other solution, or the date it will be cut off.’ She used the ATM card up until 2010, but after that time, life was very difficult for her.”
Emily gave birth to their daughter Mable while Simon was in prison. She visited him consistently during his entire sentence and took on multiple jobs to support their child.
“My wife worked as a house help in the households in Kampala to raise money to support herself, our child, and me in prison.” Simon explains. “My kid started going to school to study until she graduated at top class.”
Dealt injustice, now a defender.
While in prison, Simon became inquisitive about the finer details of the law. He learned about Justice Defenders and subsequently trained as a paralegal. This enabled Simon to equip himself in legal matters and enable his peers to access justice.
Pascal Kakuru, who is now a legal education tutor working for Justice Defenders, was imprisoned at the same time as Simon. When they met for the first time both outside prison walls, Pascal described the tremendous contribution Simon made to the paralegal work while in prison: “I know Akena as a smart guy. Very simple, respectful, flexible, and willing to learn. He assisted his peers as a paralegal inmate.”
“While in prison, I added value to my life in many aspects. I joined school. I got a diploma from Makerere University Business School and I also trained as a paralegal.” Simon explains. “I conducted initial interviews for incoming clients to find out their problems and the kind of assistance they needed from Justice Defenders. Later on, I took on other roles.” Simon adds.
“What Justice Defenders is doing is actually so great because a big number of people are suffering for no serious reason. The [case] files are not there. What causes the files to disappear? It is not known and without court files you can’t do anything. So the work they are doing is so good in tracing [peoples’] files.
“Most of the inmates didn’t know anything about the law. But with the presence of Justice Defenders in the prisons at least legal awareness is conducted. That's what I was also doing. Prisoners are getting to learn how to go about with court issues.
“The help I was getting from them was really great. [Although] my case didn't move the way we expected, I was getting support from Justice Defenders as a paralegal. Let them continue to give scholarships to students or inmates who are still there because that's the only way things are going to change.
“The legal system can change.”
Injustice lives for years.
Armed with legal knowledge, with his family by his side, Simon is now looking for a job. However life is very tough. With the conviction, finding a job will be difficult.
Not long after Simon’s release, Emily suffered an ectopic pregnancy, which resulted in them losing their unborn child. The little savings Emily had went to covering her healthcare costs, and the pair are currently living in different towns while Simon urgently looks for employment. Despite their circumstance, Emily is thrilled her husband is finally free.
“I hope that my husband gets a job … so that he can support the family,” Emily says. “I’m very grateful for what God has done for my husband and Justice Defenders. I am so happy even [our] child is so happy. Now that we’re together, God has done me a miracle.” Emily explains.
As Justice Defenders, we believe in the universal value of life and the sacredness of each person. We want to see people going from the margins of society to the centre of it.
The cost of injustice for people like Simon is devastating. In Uganda, prisons have an occupancy level of nearly 300%. More than 250 Ugandan cases have been in the court system for 10 or more years. We provide access to justice for all and work to ensure everyone has the opportunity to tell their side of the story.
You can help fuel the defence.