The High Court in Gulu has granted freedom to Sylvia Komuhangi, a 32-year-old Secondary School teacher who had been wrongfully sentenced to two years in jail for allegedly injecting a baby with HIV-infected blood.
She was convicted on July 4 last year by the Chief Magistrate of Kitgum, Hussein Nasur Ntalo.
On the evening of August 29, 2019, Sylvia Komuhangi walked out of the Gulu High Court premises accompanied by a female prisons security official. Court had overturned the conviction.
With a restrained smile, the kind that projects more relief than joy, Komuhangi walked to her lawyer, Immaculate Owomugisha.
Komuhangi and Owomugisha shook hands, hugged and clasped their hands around each other’s waist for a while.
Outside the court room, she responded to how it felt to regain her freedom after eight months in Kitgum Central prison, 805 kilometres away from her home in Rukungiri.
“I feel so happy,” she said. “It was so difficult, ” Komuhangi said.
A friendly visit gone wrong
On December 27, 2018, Komuhangi was arrested and charged at Kitgum Magistrate’s Court with the offence of committing a “negligent act likely to spread disease contrary to Section 171 of the Penal Code Act of the Republic of Uganda.”
During her trial, at the Magistrate’s Court, prosecution stated that at about 9 P.M on December 26, 2018, Komuhangi carried the alleged victim away from her babysitter to the bedroom and then returned later, with the baby crying.
Prosecution further stated that when the mother, Eunice Lakot, examined her baby, she found swellings in both armpits. She took the baby to Kitgum hospital for diagnosis, where doctors reportedly confirmed that the swellings were caused by injections.
Consequently, a medical professional tested Komuhangi for HIV, and she was found positive. The child was given Post-exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), an antiretroviral medication that prevents infection to anyone exposed to HIV during the first ninety-six hours. Komuhangi was subsequently arrested.
But in her account this week after court set her free, Komuhangi narrated that she had traveled to Kitgum from Kampala for a tour in late December 2018, and spent several nights at a friend’s house in Kitgum town. After a visit to the Kidepo Valley National Park, she returned to Kitgum to find her friend’s home surrounded by local authorities.
“We were arrested there and then,” she said.
“I spent two weeks in custody asking [to be released on bond], but they did not give me bond, saying I was a non-resident. When we went to court, I asked for bail, and they refused. They refused to give me bail until they convicted me”.
On Komuhangi’s release, Lakot, the mother of the baby, shared that the most recent results showed that her baby is HIV negative. The baby’s maternal grandmother, Rose Oryem, said they would not challenge the court’s decision.
Komuhangi is not the first convict of wilful HIV transmission charges. It is a crime in Uganda to “willfully and intentionally” transmit HIV.
In 2014, a 64-year-old nurse in Kampala, Rosemary Namubiru, was was charged with and convicted of committing a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease for allegedly injecting a toddler with her HIV-positive blood in the process of administering treatment.
Owomugisha, who is the UGANET head of advocacy and strategic litigation, says cases that involve HIV are not subjected to sufficient rigor, with sentiments often carrying the day at the expense of proper investigation, prosecution, and objectivity in court.
“Most convictions are based on unfair, inaccurate and overblown facts,” she says.
“The media usually joins to hype up stories [and] this sensationalism crowds out good judgment, resulting in a miscarriage of justice.”
Speaking particularly about Komuhangi’s case, Owomugisha faulted media for “HIV criminalization” for “condemning” suspects even before the initial trial.
“Several media houses were set on the loose name-calling such as ‘murderer and killer’. The media buzz was everywhere, including on the radio airwaves for days. This undressed Komuhangi of all dignity,” she said.
“We (UGANET) decided to offer legal representation to Komuhangi, resulting in a swift appeal against her conviction. Within two months from the time the appeal was first lodged before the Gulu High Court, she had regained her freedom”.
Justice Stephen Mubiru, who handled the appeal, overturned the conviction, saying that forensic tests showed that DNA traces found on the cloth that Komuhangi used to wrap the baby belonged to her but did not contain any blood.
“I could not find any connection between her piece of cloth and the blood said to have been injected into the baby because the swelling found on the baby could have been a mere rash,” he added, according to a report by the Daily Monitor.
Another of Komuhangi’s lawyers, Louis Odong, said the ruling sent a message to people who criminalize HIV victims not to engage in the practice while Owomugisha added that the court’s decisions had restored “dignity to Sylvia Komuhangi and many like her.”
“We commend the court decision for setting an example that if courts scratched below the surface of news, they would realize that one’s HIV positive status alone does not equate to malicious intent,” she said.
The Executive Director of UGANET, Dora Kiconco Musinguzi said the criminalization of people living with HIV undermines the response to HIV by compromising public health and human rights.“
“As a community of HIV actors, we remind the nation that we cannot end AIDS, or reach epidemic control with HIV criminalization coupled with HIV discrimination. Human rights and dignity need to be accorded to all. We need to stop stigma and end HIV criminalization,” she stated.
Kiconco said that in light of the court’s decision, the community of people living with HIV and organisations that UGANET works with recommend that the Constitutional Court should fast track the hearing of Petition No. 24 of 2016, through which their issues were presented to the country’s second-highest judicial organ for interpretation.
“Our Constitution espouses a key principle – innocent until proven guilty. Abusing victims with names such as ‘monster and murderer’ is wrong. This jeopardizes their chance for a fair hearing,” she emphasized.