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Summer Internship Blogpost from Debbie Stieglitz: Alan’s Case

By September 5, 2016December 16th, 2019DPP, Internship Grant Program, Uganda
This summer, we sent three to interns to work with the Uganda Department of Public Prosecutions (our equivalent of the Attorney General). The following blog post is by one of those interns, Debbie Stieglitz.

Allan Ssembatya was seven years old when he was kidnapped on his way home from school in October, 2009.  When he was found, he was barely alive and laying in a pool of his own blood. His skull had been ripped open by a “panga” (machete), and a section of his skull had been removed. He suffered a deep stab wound to the neck, and was castrated. Yet he was alive.

Child sacrifice is an epidemic on the rise in Uganda. Every year, countless numbers of children are killed by witch doctors at the request of people looking to increase their wealth or power. Individual body parts, most often facial features and genitals, are cut off for ceremonial use in the belief that they will be consumed by spirits, leading to riches or ending of other problems.  Additionally, because of the economic boom Uganda is experiencing, property development is on the rise and witch doctors have begun burying children alive at development sites to bring good fortune.
During my summer internship in Uganda, it was mentioned to me that “when you see all the development around the city, know that it is being done on the tops of sacrificed children.”

As was mentioned in my previous blog post about my internship in Uganda, I had the great fortune of working at the Directorate of Public Prosecution’s headquarters in the capital city of Kampala.  My access to Mike Chibitia, the head of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, was the reason that I was able to help Peter Sewakiryanga, from Kyampisi Childcare Ministries, with his work in trying to bring justice upon these evil witch doctors that brutally dismember and murder innocent children.  To put where I was working in an American context, Mike Chibitia is the equivalent to Uganda what Loretta Lynch is to the United States, i.e., the Attorney General.

When I arrived in Uganda, I had already been working on Hope’s case, which was discussed in my first blog post.  However, my arrival in Uganda was not only perfect timing for my continued work on Hope’s case, but also to potentially help rectify a gross injustice for Alan.

When Alan awoke from his coma in the hospital, after being brutally mutilated, he identified the two witch doctors by name.  At the end of 2009, the trial began against the two accused men.  Alan, at just seven years old, and suffering from PTSD, was required to testify in court facing the men that intended to kill him.  The trial lasted until 2012 because in Uganda it is typical for witnesses and lawyers not to show up, and in Alan’s case there were three separate instances of the judge not showing up to court the day the trial was scheduled.  At the end of the trial, both witch doctors were released.  Neither Alan’s family nor Peter (from Kyampisi Childcare Ministries) were informed of the results of the trial, and up until June of 2016, did not know what the ruling of the case was.  All they knew was Alan’s attackers were back in the village as free men.

Peter had been requesting to see Alan’s court file and the court proceedings of the case ever since the release of the witch doctors.  Indeed, Heather Pate, a former Center intern from 2013, worked tirelessly to find out what happened and assemble a court file.  Finally, after years of sending numerous request letters and going to the court in person, he finally received a transcript of the court proceeding.  He received the transcript after my arrival in Uganda and immediately met me at the DPP headquarters so that I could look through it.  He had not even read the transcript before he gave it to me.  After reading through the transcript of the court proceedings I discovered that the witch doctors had in fact been acquitted of the charge of attempted murder against them.  Knowing the ruling of the court was imperative to know how, if at all, we could proceed in either appealing the case or trying the witch doctors on a completely new charge.

The main reason why the judge acquitted the witch doctors was because Alan’s testimony was not given under oath, because as a minor, the judge determined that Alan did not know what being under oath meant.  Thus, Alan could not be sworn to be under oath.  Giving testimony under oath is critical.  In Uganda, a person can give a testimony without being under oath, however, the testimony will only be allowed into evidence if another person fully corroborates the testimony given.  In cases of child sacrifice this is a major hindrance to justice.  Children are always the victims of witch doctors, and it is often ruled that children do not have the capacity to understand what under oath means.  Without being under oath, another person has to fully corroborate what the child has said in order for it to be entered into evidence.  Here lies the problem: witch doctors snatch children in the dark when no one is around.  There will never be anyone that can corroborate the child’s testimony because witch doctors instinctively do the kidnapping and sacrifice when no one is around to see or hear anything.

In Alan’s case. though, the court made an error.  The judge made her ruling on Alan’s capacity of understanding after stating that she completed a “voir dire” and she found him lacking in capacity to understand what under oath meant.  A voir dire is a preliminary examination done by the judge of a witness (or in this case the defendant).  A voir dire is basically a trial within a trial when it is needed, as in this case, when it was needed to preliminarily examine Alan before he gave his testimony so the court could rule whether his testimony could be under oath.  During a voir dire in this situation, the judge will ask basic questions, such as asking the child what his or her name is followed by questions to gauge the child’s competency by asking if he or she knows right from wrong or the difference between the truth and a lie.  When a voir dire is conducted, it is important that the court transcript record the questions asked by the judge and the corresponding responses of the child.  Should the case be appealed, the appellate judge has the option to look at the responses of the child and can make his or her own determination of the child’s competency, even reversing the trial court’s ruling on the voir dire.

The transcript for Alan’s case did not include the questions from the judge nor Alan’s response to them.  All that was mentioned in the transcript was that a voir dire was conducted, but that is not enough.  Because of this error of the court, an application of appeal was filed stating that the trial court’s ruling should be nullified and the case should be retried.

Currently, the application for appeal is in the court system awaiting a ruling.  A judge will look over the application submitted and make the ultimate decision if Alan’s case will be retried.  It is highly likely that a judge will retry Alan’s case.  Child sacrifice is on the rise in Uganda, and it has become a high public policy concern.  Additionally, BBC has come to Uganda and reported about the child sacrifice problem.  Uganda is a developing country and Ugandans are concerned with how the international community views their country and their people.  This problem is receiving international attention, and the people and officials in Uganda have a real desire to stop this horrific practice so that Uganda can be seen what it really is: a great nation committed to the rule of law and protecting the innocent.

As I mentioned above, I was in Uganda at just the right time, God’s time.

My biggest contribution to the children in Uganda was to be blessed enough to secure an internship with the head of the DPP, Mike Chibita.  It is because of my position as his intern that I had access to the desk of the head of the DPP.  There are thousands upon thousands of cases that come across Director Chibita’s desk.  And while I was there, there were never less than 20 files sitting on his desk every day.  However, I believe God placed me in the position I was in for these two children, Hope and Alan, who have been waiting since 2009 for justice.  God had not forgotten about these children, nor any of the others that are still awaiting justice.

Serving these children has blessed me much more than I could ever do for them.  I am eternally grateful to serve an awesome God and to attend a law school that allows me to serve these amazing children.

Watch a short BBC segment done about Alan here:

This post was written by a Center for Global Justice student intern.  The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect those of Regent University, Regent Law School, or the Center for Global Justice.