GULU: Court throws out case against 17 people over Balaalo eviction

Some of the 17 suspects outside Gulu CHief Magistrate's Court on Thursday, May 02, 2024, after the state case against them was dismissed (Photos/David Okema)

Gulu, (UG):- The Chief Magistrate’s Court in Gulu has dismissed a case against 17 people charged for allegedly invading Balaalo cattle farming in the northern Uganda district late last year.

The Court’s Chief Magistrate, His Worship Said Barigye who presided over the hearing today, May 02, ruled that there is no merit and the complainant lost interest in the case, thus setting free the suspects.

The persons set free included Patrick Okello Onguti, the former Democratic Party candidate for Aswa County in the last election, Chris Owen Okoya, the Owalo sub-county chairperson, Michael Otto, Jolly Bismarck Kidega, Pope Opoka, Henry Onen, John Oloya, Kenneth Orach, Wilberforce Okongo, Ronald Opwonya, Martine Acila, Christopher Rackara, Christopher Nyerotoo, Francis Okello, Justine Okumu, Betty Ocwee and a 17-year-old minor.

The group was arrested on November 23rd 2023, by the military and later charged in the court of law on allegation of illegal entry to a farm belonging to one Enock, a Balalo herdsman in Palaro Lugore who was herding about 150 cows. They were dissatisfied with Enock’s animals which were destroying crops from the locals’ garden. They also blamed many herdsmen for not complying with the Presidential directive.

The defence lawyer, senior counsels including Christopher Kidega, Tony Kitara, Samuel Odonga Otto and, Walter Okidi Ladwar and other lawyers represented the freed suspects. Counsel Kidega said their clients were falsely accused of defending their land when they stood up to resist Balalo’s illegality over their land.

“It was not surprising to us as the lawyers who have been appearing here that the complainants never appeared, so the law is clear, once the complainants do not appear, and the accused have been appearing on several occasions. This is actually the six months since the case was pressed on them and fortunately, today we made our prayer to the court and the whole matter was dismissed.”

Patrick Okello Onguti (Centre) talking to Counsel Komakech Henry Kilama (left) and senior Counsel Christopher Kidega outside court room.

However, the state prosecutor prayed for further adjournment of the case but when the magistrate asked whether the prosecutor knew the whereabouts of the complainants, the prosecutors admitted to having not seen or known the complainants. This then made the Magistrate to dismiss the case.

Suspects vow to continue from where they left

The Democratic Party loyalist Patrick Okello Onguti, one of the accused persons set free, hailed the court for upholding its integrity.

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“Many people are trying to blackmail us that we are tribal, antigovernment, no that is not the case. It is about communal land, the procedure to acquire communal land is set by the law but you don’t take advantage of poverty-stricken people. I cannot go to Buganda and take advantage of some poverty-stricken person and take away his land, no it doesn’t work. So, we shall continue with the same advocate and we thank the court for upholding the integrity and sanity of this important arm of government,”

Betty Ocwee, one of the accused, lamented that what they were fighting against is not yet over.
“Today we are free but Acholi is not yet free. we are free from the court but our people are not free Right now, we are continuing to many more cattle tracks of cattle are entering, and more charcoal burning is still taking place in all the parishes of Gulu district,” she reacted.

Ocwee who now supports herself to walk with crutches after allegedly picking injuries from alleged torture by the army at arrest, claims that there are still cases of impunity by Balaalo herdsmen in the form of beating some locals in their community of Palaro. (Palaro Subcounty in Gulu district was the first area in northern Uganda to witness the first illegal influx of Balalo herdsmen around 2015).

“Like as you can see me, I don’t feel okay after severe torture from the 4th Division Barrack by the army without treatment. I’m just there at home suffering with no treatment,” Ocwee broke down in tears in the compound of Gulu High Court Circuit.

Ms. Betty Ocwee, one of the suspects freed.

“We are not happy. Our district is bleeding, our children are suffering, we are not free in the land, cutting of trees is very rampant for burning charcoal and, heavy trucks keeps coming to our district day and night carrying charcoal. We have no voice, cattle are destroying our crops and famine is too much in the district. We are not free, to me I am not free at all,” she added.

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Ms. Laker Gloria Grace, an Activist and Scholar of Peace and Conflict Studies described what is happening in Acholi as “unfortunate.”

She said rampant land grabbing and continued illegal charcoal trade by people coming from the central part of Uganda is a clear symbol of injustices to the already susceptible poor voiceless community trying to recover from the over two decades of Lord Resistance Army insurgency.

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