A Ugandan court this week jailed four members of a Muslim sect for life on terrorism charges, a judgment denounced by some as the latest in a series of anti-Muslim rulings.
On Tuesday Kampala’s High Court sentenced Sheikh Yunus Kamoga and three members of his Tabliq sect to life in prison, while two others were given 30 years each.
But a day earlier the same court had acquitted Kamoga and 13 others of the murder and attempted murder of leaders of two rival Muslim factions — on the same evidence.
The apparently contradictory verdicts have left some observers suspicious.
“I find the decision very unusual because the main case was about the murders and the terrorism was arising from the murders, so if they were not guilty of the murders then they should be not guilty of the terrorism,” said human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi.
In his three-and-a-half-hour judgement Justice Muhanguzi said that while the men were not proven to have killed anyone, they had used threatening leaflets and loudhailers to intimidate rivals.
Those threats amounted to terrorism against the entire community, he ruled.
“Court finds that death threats were delivered by word of mouth and on loudspeakers, hence it was indiscriminate,” Muhanguzi said.
Defence lawyer Fred Muwema thought he had an explanation for what he saw as the judgement’s inconsistencies.
“I do not have direct evidence… but there is always political pressure and interference in a country like this,” he said. “I think the state was interested in the Tabliq community.
“Court cannot accept something and deny it at the same time,” Muwema continued. “That’s a contradiction and a miscarriage of justice.”
But Solomon Muyita, the spokesman for Uganda’s judiciary, said if lawyers had evidence that judges had been politically influenced they should bring it to court.
Uganda has taken a hard-line against suspected Islamists since the deadly suicide bombings in 2010 carried out by the Al-Qaeda-aligned Shabaab militants in their first attack outside of Somalia.
But some say that Muslims are being scapegoated.
They argue that this week’s terrorism conviction is just the latest in a series of questionable cases where Muslims have been blamed for the murders of officials and Islamic clerics.
The cases include the murders of nine Muslim clerics since 2012; of Joan Kagezi, a prosecutor working on the 2010 Kampala bombings case, in March 2015; of an army officer in November 2016 who had defected from a Ugandan-led Islamist rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo; and of a prominent policeman in March.
In each case the victims were shot dead by motorbike-riding assassins, and in each case Muslim suspects were rounded up.
For Rwakafuzi, the evidence for Muslim involvement in the high-profile killings is flimsy at best.
“The Muslims are being profiled,” he said.
“We have very poor, underfunded investigation mechanisms. It’s an easy way out to show to the public that you’re doing something about these killings.”
Muslims were being targeted, he said, because “it is easier to believe” thanks to widespread fears of Islamic terrorism, in Uganda and elsewhere.
A spokesman for the Tabliq sect, Siraje Nsambu, said the terrorism and murder charges against Kamoga and the others were trumped up. He denounced the ruling against them as “purely political”.
But government spokesman Ofwono Opondo dismissed allegations that Muslims were unfairly targeted.
“Uganda has a very long standing record of having no political, religious or racial persecution,” he said.
“There is no reason whatsoever why the government of Ugandan should target those Muslim cliques.”
Nonetheless, this week’s ruling and its harsh sentences has further embittered a community that already feels marginalised by the government and victimised by authorities.
“The government has clearly shown that it is against Islam and Muslims. We are used as a scapegoat just like the world over,” said Nsambu.
“As Muslims, we are angry right now.”