CSOs petition judge over “impropriety” in handling Bugoma forest case

The Water and Environment Media Network – Uganda (WEMNET–Uganda) has petitioned the Principal Judge of the High Court of Uganda, Flavian Zeija, over the way a High Court judicial officer handled their case against the destruction of Bugoma forest.

Under the Save Bugoma Forest Campaign, WEMNET-Uganda filed a suit seeking interim remedies among which, an injunction against the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) about the “illegality committed in the process of approving the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report for the Kyangwali Mixed Land Use project”.

The project belongs to Hoima Sugar Ltd.

The petitioners say NEMA flouted the 1998 Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations 12, 19, 20, 21 and 22 when it approved the ESIA report.

“WEMNET-Uganda as part of the Save Bugoma Forest Campaignis particularly concerned about the impropriety in the handling of the Miscellaneous Application No. 509 OF 2020by the High Court Judicial Officer. The judicial Officer failed to appreciate that ESIA approval is not a private matter but an administrative decision”. 

They say the judicial officer who they did not identify deferred the application that was scheduled for October 2, 2020 to an unknown date without official communication to the parties adding that such an anomaly continued when they learnt of the ruling circulating on various social media platforms and the press.

“As if that is not enough, on Wednesday 7th October 2020, the ruling was shared at 8:00am by a one Sheila Nduhukire, a spokesperson for Hoima Sugar Ltd an entity that occupies the land in question but was not party to the suit. The said ruling was later shared at 10:00am by the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), the respondent in the matter on their tweeter page before the applicants had received any copy”.

Adding: “It was not until 16:00hrs, of the same day, that the said ruling was availed to us, the parties. It is extremely strange, unbecoming and unprofessional for a judicial officer or anyone in the judiciary to share a court decision to persons not party to a case before the parties themselves receive such a decision”.  

The petitioners say from the ruling contain gross and flawed interpretation of the law on judicial review, which they suspect was either not written by the judicial officer it purports to have come from or the said judicial officer in question was well acquainted with the matter at hand and, thus, came to alleged wrong decisions. 

They add that their efforts to access a signed copy of the ruling is in vain as the judicial officer has not them an opportunity to get a copy since the emailed one does not have any signature appended to it.

The petition says the said judicial officer ruled that the application for judicial review against the respondent (NEMA)was against a wrong party yet it was the respondent who made the said decision from which the applicant sought judicial review. 

“While it is true that Hoima Sugar may be affected by the decision of the judicial review, our judicial application seeks to protect the Constitutional right to a clean and health environment under Article 39 of the Constitution and Article 50 of the same Constitution mandates us to challenge any act or omission that violates our rights.  Our case was not about land ownership and Hoima Sugar Ltd”. 

“It was about NEMA violating the laws governing ESIA processes i.e. whether or not the project is a forest or not. It is absurd that a court ruling is based on the misinterpretation of our application and has allowed NEMA and Hoima Sugar Ltd to continue destroying our forest in violation of our right to a clean and health environment contrary to Article 39 of our Constitution”.

It is against this backdrop that the petitioners believe that the commissions or omissions by the judicial officer occasioned a miscarriage of justice and thus seek the judge’s urgent intervention to reign on the same “so that such insensitive decisions do not see the light of day in future and lead to more violations of our constitutional rights”. 

More than 25 Civil Society Organisations under the Save Bugoma Forest Campaign recommend that the principal judge intervenes and re-allocates the case to another judicial officer and considers providing refresher courses to various judicial officers at various levels on current and trending issues including judicial review applications and environmental issues especially those touching constitutional rights.

The CSOs also recommend that the principal judge intervenes and ensures that the main application for judicial review and the appeal for injunction are heard and determined with the urgency they deserve.

“A natural forest is being cut down based on an illegal ESIA certificate of approval and any more delays will never provide any redress as the forest is already being cut down.

Among CSO that have signed against the petition include Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust, National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), Ecotrust and Tree Talk Plus.

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