Uganda – Knowledge, attitudes and practices on pre-trial detention

ASF just published a report that explores the level of knowledge, the attitudes and practices of key stakeholders towards pre-trial detention under the criminal justice system in Uganda. The survey was undertaken in four locations of Gulu, Arua, Lamwo and Kampala. A total of 405 community members, 96 police detainees, 54 prisoners, and 47 officials from Justice Law and Order sector (JLOS) institutions and legal aid service providers were interviewed, using both qualitative and quantitative methods. The report sheds light on the root causes of violations of procedural and constitutional rights. With this evidence base, the report provides recommendations for action and positive reforms in the area of pre-trial detention.

Uganda has an elaborate legal framework regulating pre-trial detention, which includes detailed provisions regarding procedural and constitutional rights. Compliance with these provisions,however, continues to be a challenge. Many persons going through the criminal justice system suffer violations of their human rights. These include arbitrary or illegal arrests, overstaying inpolice custody, the lack of access to police bond, or violations of the right to mandatory bail. The most vulnerable and indigent are those who suffer most from the lack of compliance with procedural and constitutional rights.

The report findings show that a key challenge which exacerbates the continued violation of rights during detention is the lack of knowledge by the public with regard to their pre-trial constitutional and procedural rights. Only half (50%) of respondents in the community were able to mention some of the rights of people arrested by police. Such rights as (1) the right to be produced in court within 48 hours after arrest, (2) the right to be released on mandatory bail, (3) the right to access a lawyer and (4) the legal provisions related to police bond are not known by a majority of the population (less than 50% of respondents had knowledge of those rights).

The prison inmates interviewed during the survey had slightly better levels of knowledge of their rights, which could be attributed to sensitization meetings held by prison wardens and NGOs.

The lack of knowledge of key procedural and constitutional safeguards, both within the community and in places of detention, is not a surprising finding. However, it re-confirms the importance of dissemination of these technical provisions in order for rights-holders to be empowered to demand respect for their rights.

Regarding attitudes and perceptions, findings show a lack of trust in some criminal justice institutions, in particular in the Uganda Police Force (UPF). Community respondents noted issues such as delays and inefficiency in the treatment of cases, as well as corruption.

Both police detainees and prison inmates reported low levels of trust in the police to handle cases, and mentioned experiences of being asked for bribes.

Such a high level of distrust in the police may impede access to justice and human rights, as communities who do not trust the police will be less likely to report cases or collaborate with the police, and detainees may feel less confident in advocating for the respect of their rights in their interaction with the police.

A consequence of the distrust of the police was also the finding that the majority (57%) of community members trusted local or cultural courts rather than the police to handle their cases, especially in rural areas such as Lamwo and Arua.

Finally, the study also sought to identify prevalent practices with regard to pre-trial detention and the administration of justice, in order to understand how realities may differ from the provisions of the law. Among community respondents, a particularly outstanding finding concerned the prevalence of mob justice, with about 89% of respondents acknowledging its existence in their community. At the level of police detention, a key finding identified from detainee surveys concerned the duration of detention, which averaged 5.3 days, far beyond the legal limit of 48 hours. Finally, an important issue was also raised with regard to legal aid: only 16% of police detainees and 30% of prison inmates had access to a lawyer.

Perspectives and challenges faced by duty bearers

In order to fully contextualize the above findings, the study also sought to gather the opinions of duty bearers on their role in protecting procedural and constitutional rights, and their attitudes and practices within the criminal justice system. Stakeholders from various institutions were interviewed, including the Uganda Police Force (UPF), the Judiciary, the Office of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (ODPP), the Uganda Prisons Service (UPS), cultural and Local Council leaders, probation officers and the in-charge of a remand home.

Overall, the stakeholders interviewed demonstrated solid knowledge of their role in upholding constitutional and procedural rights and stressed the fact that the execution of their roles is interdependent within the criminal justice chain link (police, prison, judiciary, ODPP). Yet, they identified several systemic challenges which greatly impeded their ability to fulfil their duties. Beyond the expected human resource challenges and inadequate funding issues, stakeholders also discussed coordination gaps amongst JLOS institutions, or dysfunctional checks and balances within the criminal justice system.

Finally, interviews with advocates and paralegals highlighted key issues in legal aid service provision, including the lack of services in rural areas such as Lamwo, and funding gaps. Such findings highlight the pressing need for government to address access to legal aid as a matter of national policy.

Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF), in partnership with the Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET), implemented a three-year project (2020-2023) entitled “Protecting procedural andconstitutional rights through access to justice” in the districts of Kampala, Arua, Gulu, Hoima, Lamwo, Kitgum, Wakiso and Masindi.

ExPEERience Talk #12 – Pre-trial detention in Uganda: Learnings from a study on knowledge, attitudes and practices

  • When? Thursday February, 15 2024 – 12pm (Bangui, Brussels, Kinshasa, Niamey, Rabat, Tunis) / 2pm (Dodoma, Nairobi, Kampala)
  • Langage: English
  • Free online event – Registration required

During this ExPEERience Talk #12, ASF’s team in Uganda will present the resutlts of a soon-to-be-published report on knowledge, attitudes and practices about pre-trial detention in Uganda.

Uganda has an elaborate legal framework regulating pre-trial detention, which includes detailed provisions regarding procedural and constitutional rights. Compliance with these provisions, however, continues to be a challenge: many persons going through the criminal justice system suffer violations of their human rights. These include arbitrary or illegal arrests, overstaying in police custody, the lack of access to police bond, or violations of the right to mandatory bail. The most vulnerable and indigent are those who suffer most from the lack of compliance with procedural and constitutional rights.

The report explores the knowledge, attitudes and practices of users of the criminal justice system, namely communities and pre-trial detainees, along with the perspectives of duty bearers, thereby shedding light on the root causes of violations of procedural and constitutional rights. With this evidence base, the report provides recommendations for action and positive reforms in the area of pre-trial detention.

Join us on February 15 to discuss how we can work together to improve the respect of fundamental rights in detention.

Related publications

Report – Protecting constitutional and procedural rights of pre-trial detainees through access to justice in Uganda

Bail in Uganda: A right or a privilege?

National Dialogue on safeguarding procedural and constitutional rights for pre-trial detainees in Uganda: A reflection on challenges and opportunities

  • When? Thursday 26th of October 2023
  • Where? Kampala (Venue to be determined)
  • The event is organised in collaboration with the Uganda Human Righs Commission
  • By invitation only
  • Online broadcast of the event

This dialogue will bring together actors from Uganda police force, Uganda prison service, Judiciary, Office of the director of public prosecutions, parliament, members of civil society, academia, development partners, project advocates and paralegals.

It will be an opportunity to address the challenges affecting the enforcement of procedural rights in the administration of criminal justice in Uganda and propose reforms to address the gaps.

The event is part of the project “Protecting procedural and constitutional rights through access to justice”, which was implemented from 2020 to 2023 by ASF and its partner LASPNET (Legal Aid Service Provider Network) in the districts of Gulu, Masindi, Hoima, Lamwo, Kampala and Wakiso.

In Uganda, as in many countries, rights of pre-trial detainees continue to be violated. Since the start of the project, advocates and paralegals reached over 10,000 detainees whose procedural rights were violated in the project districts, and provided procedural remedies to over 2,000 detainees. Notable among these violations is the detention of suspects beyond 48 hours, and the overstay on remand for both capital and petty offenders, which results into violations of their constitutional right to be released on mandatory bail and to a fair and speedy trial. Two studies conducted by ASF, the baseline report on the social economic profile of detainees and the Knowledge, Attitude and Practices report, noted that the overstay on remand by both the petty and the capital offenders is as a result of poor attitude towards pre-trail detention by state actors. 

The aim of the project is to contribute to a better application of procedural and constitutional rights in the administration of criminal justice in order to reinforce adherence to human rights and the rule of law in Uganda. It adopted a holistic approach, going beyond addressing detention issues in the administration of justice in Uganda and working towards a greater engagement from central institutions for policy reform in Uganda.

Register to follow the event online

East Africa – Protecting civic space: A public interest litigation approach

This article was published in ASF’s 2022 annual report.

In 2022, ASF’s East Africa office launched a project covering three countries in the region: Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. The objective of the project is to contribute to the advancement of the rule of law through the understanding and usage of regional human rights treaty bodies, mechanisms and instruments by local civil societies organisations.

In practice, the project focuses on promoting the use of public interest litigation as a tool for influence, to bring about positive reforms in the areas of civic space and civil liberties. In its countries of intervention, ASF has identified existing and developing cases led by civil society organisations. Through the project, financial and technical support is provided to these cases, along with strategic reflection on how their reach can be amplified through advocacy and external engagements. A key aspect of the project, given its regional nature, will also be to support cases mobilizing regional mechanisms such as the East African Court of Justice, or the African Court on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR).

With support from the Pan African Lawyers’ Union, ASF is working on legal submissions to the ACHPR on the right of association, which cover a dozen African states. Our observations and legal analyses led us to believe that practices and laws governing NGOs in many African states were in violation of the freedom of association. These submissions are aimed at upholding fundamental civil liberties and imposing a positive obligation on the states to reform the laws in force and to end the practices infringing on the right of association.  

ASF is also providing financial and technical support to a constitutional petition brought by civil society organizations, including Chapter Four, before Uganda’s Constitutional Court, to challenge the constitutionality of the Computer Misuse Act voted into law in October 2022. Though this controversial piece of legislation has been hailed by the government as a necessary protection of privacy in the digital age, it is perceived by many local CSOs as an infringement on the freedoms of expression and press.

ASF’s East Africa regional hub

This article was published in ASF’s 2022 annual report.

In recent years, ASF has progressively adopted a regional approach to its activities in East Africa. To lead the organisation development in the region and enable the implementation of strong and coherent regional strategies, a regional hub was created in Kampala in 2021. It is currently made up of three staff, in addition to the Regional Director and the respective Country Director for Uganda and Coordinators of Programs for Kenya and Tanzania.

Countries in East Africa share historical, economic, political, social and cultural ties, and have become increasingly integrated. In this context, issues of interest to ASF, such as the governance of natural resources, detention, or security and liberty, may cut across several countries. Lessons learnt when implementing programs in one country can therefore be of great significance to develop our action in other contexts.

Since its creation, a key role of the Regional Office has been to strategically compile and redistribute knowledge across all programs. This has allowed for synergies to be developed, while also leaving space for the contextualization of each intervention.

In addition to this, the creation of new roles dedicated to specific technical functions within the regional team has provided a way for ASF to improve methodological support to the various country teams, in areas such as research, monitoring and evaluation, strategic litigation, and advocacy.

A key priority for the Regional Office is also to identify opportunities for development at a regional level, including through the drafting of multi-country and regional projects. In March 2022, ASF launched a two-year project funded by the Belgian DGD entitled ‘Protecting Civic Space: a Public Interest Litigation Approach’. Covering three countries in the region, the project aims to contribute to the advancement of the rule of law in East Africa through mobilizing civil society around regional human rights treaty bodies, mechanisms and instruments.

Moving forward, the Regional Office intends to keep strengthening ASF’s presence at a regional level in East Africa. Whether through advocacy, strategic litigation, or other engagements with external stakeholders, efforts will continue throughout 2023 to ensure that ASF’s work is visible and impactful in the region.

ExPEERience Talk #11 – Decriminalising poverty, status and activism: a global emergency, an international campaign

  • When? 5 October – 12 pm (GMT+1, Tunis) ; 1pm (GMT+2, Brussels)
  • Language: French
  • Free online event – Mandatory registration

This 11th ExPEERience Talk will be devoted to the Campaign for the Decriminalisation of Poverty, Status and Activism. Several of its members will present its history and how it operates. They will discuss the challenges encountered and the opportunities presented by the networking of a multiplicity of actors to tackle a global and systemic issue of such magnitude.

In many countries, criminal procedure, penal codes and policing policies continue to reflect a colonial legacy. Offences dating from the colonial era, such as vagrancy, begging or disorderly conduct, are commonly used against people already in a vulnerable or marginalised situationt (homeless people, people with disabilities, drug users, LGBTIQ+ people, sex workers, migrants, etc.), with the sole aim of criminalising what they represent in society rather than the offences they have committed. Many countries are also witnessing a narrowing of civic space and the use of criminal law to repress activism and stifle dissent. These phenomena are deeply rooted in the legislation, institutions and practices of States around the world.

During this ExPEERience Talk, speakers from several of the campaign’s member organisations will illustrate the very real consequences of these repressive laws and practices for civil society and the general public. They will also talk about the various actions undertaken as part of the campaign: joint research, litigation and lobbying actions before national and international institutions.

To date, the campaign is supported by some fifty civil society organisations from many countries. Its ambition is to create the conditions for a global change in criminal and social laws, policies and practices by adopting a transnational and multisectoral strategy.


  • Khayem Chemli – Head of advocacy at ASF – Euromed region (moderator)
  • Soheila Comninos – Senior program manager at Open Society Foundations
  • Arnaud Dandoy – Research & Learning Manager at ASF – Euromed region
  • Asmaa Fakhoury – Country director Morocco
  • Maria José Aldanas – Policy Officer at FEANTSA

Combating prison overcrowding and illegal detentions in the Democratic Republic of Congo

This article is part of ASF’s 2022 annual report.

In December 2022, according to official figures provided by the prison administration, the prison population in the 142 prisons in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) totalled 44,536. People incarcerated in the DRC are victims of serious violations of their fundamental rights, in particular those relating to respect for procedural guarantees and the right to dignified conditions of detention that comply with international standards. Around 70% of them are awaiting trial. In 4 of the country’s main central prisons (Kinshasa, Goma, Matadi and Mbuji-Mayi), the average overcrowding rate is 720%.

This alarming level of overcrowding in detention centres can be explained by the abusive use of preventive detention, slowness and administrative obstacles, structural dysfunctions in the country’s judicial, penitentiary and security systems, the absence of a legal aid system guaranteeing access to a lawyer, the lack of qualified staff, an insufficient budget and too limited access to bail.
These structural dysfunctions disproportionately affect people in vulnerable situations, particularly those in vulnerable socio-economic situations.

In response, ASF, in partnership with local partners, is strengthening access to justice for the most vulnerable populations in detention in the DRC. In 2022, ASF worked in close collaboration with the Bar Associations and civil society organisations active in the prison environment, and intervened in 8 central prisons in 6 provinces (Kinshasa, Ituri, Kongo Central, Kasaï, Kasaï Oriental, and Nord Kivu).

  • 1,820 detainees were identified, met and referred to the appropriate services during prison monitoring visits.
  • ASF and its partners guaranteed access to first-line legal aid (via free legal consultations offered by the Bureaux de Consultation Gratuites des Barreaux) to 3,511 people in detention.
  • 2,162 adult detainees and children in situations of placement in penitentiary centres received free legal assistance from a lawyer and 19 people in serious situations of vulnerability and/or psycho-medico-social vulnerability received psychosocial support after their release.
  • ASF’s interventions provided capacity building and technical support to 92 lawyers and monitors in Congolese prisons.

However, the scope of ASF and its partners’ intervention remains limited given the structural nature and magnitude of the problem of prison overcrowding in the DRC. Coordinated institutional reforms are necessary. These include the need to put in place effective and credible control and accountability mechanisms, as well as to offer complementary multi-sector services to detainees. ASF and its partners are raising awareness in order to promote extra-judicial conflict resolution mechanisms and the use of local justice mechanisms to deal with minor or benign offences in order to combat the endemic prison overcrowding in the DRC.

Bail in Uganda: A right or a privilege?

Bail[1] has increasingly become a contentious issue not only in Uganda but globally. Legal and social debates on the balance between public safety and the right to personal liberty rage on in public and political spaces. Those debates have been at the center of attention in Uganda as many have called for reform of the legislative framework regulating the access to bail and as efforts are made in that sense.

Lawmakers, civil society members, judiciary members and other actors have expressed many different and sometimes contradictory concerns about the current state of applications for bail and its grant in Uganda.

The president has openly protested some court decisions granting bail to murder suspects, arguing that this amounts to provocation of the public[2], and the increase in capital crimes has led some to advocate for more stringent conditions for the grant of bail. Cases of exorbitant fines and unaffordable cash bails imposed on applicants for bail by courts are argued to be discriminatory because only the rich can afford to pay them. Overall concerns have been raised on the inconsistencies in the exercise of court discretions while considering conditions for bail.

Another dimension of the argument regards the cost of bail for the community. Maintaining people in detention has a price and people detained cannot support their family and contribute to the economy.[3] The overall cost of maintaining a detainee in Uganda to the treasury is 22,966 UGX per prisoner per day[4]. As of December 2022, the Ugandan prisons counted 74,414 prisoners of whom 35743 were remand Prisoners.[5] This brings the yearly cost of prisoners’ maintenance to 1,708,991,924 UGX[6], of which 820,873,738, more than half goes to pre-trial detainees daily.

In December 2021, the Chief Justice issued proposed bail guidelines[7]. These were intended to complement the existing legal provisions on bail and promote uniformity and consistency by courts when considering bail applications. One of the goals of the proposed guidelines was to address the abuses in the use of pre-trial detention and the resulting prison overcrowding.

In February 2022, ASF and its partners submitted a memorandum to the Judiciary rules committee highlighting some of the key issues that hinder and impact negatively the treatment of pre-trial detainees. Some key recommendations were not considered. For example, the recommendation on Mandatory release of offenders on bail who have been in detention for 60 or 180 days for petty and capital offenders respectively without trial.

The Constitutional (Bail Guidelines for Courts of judicature) (Practice) Directions, 2022 were however passed and launched by the Chief justice on 27th July 2022. Some clauses of the guidelines have since consequentially amended the Constitutional provision on bail especially clauses providing for mandatory bail for capital offences. Previously, the Chief Magistrates had jurisdiction to grant mandatory bail to capital offenders before their cases were committed to the High Court. With the coming into force of the bail guidelines, jurisdiction to grant mandatory bail to capital offenders is now limited to only the High Court[8].  This has further hindered access to justice for pre-trial detainees especially those charged with capital cases. Lately, release of capital offenders on mandatory bail has become challenging because those who manage to apply to the High court for release on mandatory bail get committed for trial before their files are called by the High Court. In areas where there is no High Court, prisoners have lost hope and have resorted to plead guilty under plea bargain as an alternative. The congestion levels have worsened in some prisons due to an increased number of remand prisoners.

In Uganda, ASF in partnership with the Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET) is implementing a three-year project titled ‘Protecting procedural and constitutional rights through access to justice’, funded by the Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC).

Under the project, ASF has enlisted paralegals and advocates to monitor violations of procedural and constitutional rights and provide legal assistance in eight districts in Uganda. Since the start of the project, more than 4,000 cases of violation of pre-trial detention rights were registered; of these 2,047 were found in prisons. Over two thirds of detainees reached in prisons were reported to have exceeded the mandatory bail period which is a violation of their right to bail and a continued violation of procedural rights. Also, ASF undertook a baseline study on the socio-economic profile of detainees and the grounds for their incarceration. One of the key findings from the study was that 30% of the detainees did not know of the right to apply for bail and thus had overstayed on remand.

In an effort to pursue its advocacy efforts in favor of pre-trial detainees’ rights, ASF in partnership with Ssekaana Associated Advocates and Consultants and an individual petitioner, Stephen Kalali, have petitioned the Constitutional Court to challenge some provisions of the Bail Guidelines[9]. It is hoped that this will shade more light on the anomalies in the law and practice on bail.

[1] Bail is the temporary release from custody by a court of law of an accused after providing security for future appearance in court on such conditions as the court considers reasonable.

[2] Katusiime Ian. “Museveni’s Stand on Bail.” The Independent 4th October 2021.

[3] Open Society Foundations, The Socioeconomic Impact of Pretrial Detention (2011) 11ff.

[4] Around 6$

[5] Uganda Prisons Service, Monthly Newsletter, (Deceember 2022)

[6] Around 450.000$

[7] “The Constitution (Bail Guidelines for Courts of Judicature) (Practice) Directions, 2021”

[8] (Para 10(3) and 11(3) of the constitution (bail guidelines for courts of judicature) (practice) directions, 2022

[9] in the case of Kalali Stephen Vs Attorney General Constitutional Petition No 32of 2022

The challenges of detention in the Central African Republic

This article is part of ASF’s 2022 annual report.

Since 2015, ASF has paid particular attention to the issue of imprisonment in the Central African Republic (CAR). In partnership with the Bar Association, lawyers and civil society, ASF is raising awareness among detainees, monitoring detention conditions, offering legal services to detainees and lobbying to ensure that the justice reform (sectoral justice policy) initiated in the country is fully implemented. ASF is in dialogue with the Ministry of Justice, the prison administration, police forces, judges and lawyers to highlight the realities on the ground regarding detention issues.

In March 2022, ASF carried out a study looking in depth at the issues relating to detention in CAR. The report, “Les pratiques de privation de liberté en République centrafricaine, reflets d’une justice de crise et d’une justice en crise“, carried out with Inanga and with financial support from the European Union, points the finger at practices that criminalise poverty and an abusive use of preventive detention.

Although the CAR has a comparatively low rate of imprisonment, in recent years there has been an explosion in the number of people detained, particularly as a result of the increased use of pre-trial detention. More than 80% of inmates at Ngaragba, the country’s main prison, are awaiting trial. The prison, originally designed to hold a maximum of 400 people, currently has more than 1,400 inmates. Many of them are incarcerated in defiance of Central African and international standards.

The Central African Republic has been experiencing recurrent political and security crises for years. Against this backdrop, the State is attempting to reassert its presence and authority, and the judicial system seems to be used exclusively for repressive purposes, under pressure from the national authorities and international partners.

According to many actors, this crisis situation justifies crisis justice. Many of the people held in pre-trial detention are being prosecuted for offences directly related to the crisis, such as criminal conspiracy, breaches of state security, rebellion and possession of weapons. Their guilt is often presumed by the judges in charge of placing and keeping them in detention.

In a country that aspires to justice and where leaders consider the fight against impunity a priority, the use of pre-trial detention seems to be a practice that is rarely questioned. As one senior judge bitterly put it in the above-mentioned study, “it is better to lock up an innocent person than to let a criminal go free”. Fundamental legal principles such as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair defence are often relegated to second place in favour of political considerations and the need to restore peace and social cohesion.

In June 2022, at a workshop organised under the aegis of the Ministry of Justice, the study was presented to all justice stakeholders.The event brought together senior magistrates, court presidents, judges and prosecutors, examining magistrates and lawyers, as well as representatives of international bodies such as United Nations agencies, the European Union and the United States, and international NGOs. The discussions led to a consensus on the seriousness of the situation and the findings reported by ASF and its partners.The participants agreed on a series of recommendations to be implemented as a matter of urgency.These recommendations include, for example, the need to deliver judicial decisions within shorter timeframes and to provide more training for prosecutors and examining magistrates in charge of following up detainees’ cases.

The issue of detention has become a priority for the Central African Ministry of Justice, as a result of highlighting detention conditions and reporting on the experiences of local players in the field. In October 2022, the General Inspectorate of Judicial Services was strengthened.It is now competent and equipped to act directly on detention issues.

In 2023, ASF will continue its work in partnership with local stakeholders, particularly judicial and penitentiary actors‧s, as well as its advocacy with the authorities so that the commitments made give rise to structural reforms offering lasting solutions to the problem of detention in CAR.

ASF’s annual report is available!

The Avocats Sans Frontières team is delighted to present its latest annual report.

We have come a long way since ASF was founded in 1992 by a group of Belgian lawyers. Over these 30 years, hundreds of people have contributed to making the organisation what it is today: a militant organisation active in a dozen countries, working to promote access to justice and the rule of law based on human rights, in close collaboration with local actors.

These thirty years of action, the local roots we have developed and the links we have forged with human rights defenders from the four corners of the world give us a great deal of strength and confidence as we look to the future and continue to deploy impactful action in the service of populations in vulnerable situations (women, children, the LGBTQI+ community, ethnic minorities, people in detention, people in migration, etc.).

But the challenges are many. All over the world, civil society organisations and human rights defenders are faced with worrying developments and trends: the rise of authoritarianism, the shrinking of civic space, growing public distrust of institutions, heightened social tensions, etc.

Defenders of human rights and access to justice have to work in contexts that are increasingly hostile to them. The very notions of human rights and the rule of law are being called into question. Activists, lawyers and journalists working to defend the fundamental rights of populations in vulnerable situations are increasingly systematically targeted by repressive policies.

Every page of this report bears witness to the vigour of the flame that drives those who are committed to upholding human rights at the very heart of our societies, at the risk and peril of their own freedom. This report is a tribute to each and every one of them.