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In Uganda, a presidential pardon upsets rights groups who decry setback to women's progress
KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) ' A decision by Uganda's president to pardon an Indian man who in 2000 was sentenced to die for the torture murder of his wife has generated fierce criticism from activists who say it sends the wrong message in a country where women's rights have long been abused.
Sharma Kooky, who was set free this week on humanitarian grounds, spent 12 years in jail for torturing his wife to death in a case whose gruesome details once shocked and then galvanized the women's rights movement here in the 1990s.
"It's bad, it's unfortunate and it's insensitive," said Miria Matembe, a former parliamentarian who was among the politicians and activists who publicized the murder that became a rallying point for the movement. "Twelve years is short a time for people to forget the pain and the hurt. It's like pouring water on our efforts."
In a court battle that was fought all the way to Uganda's Supreme Court, Kooky was repeatedly found guilty of murdering his wife by electrocution and sent to death row. The conviction was seen as a victory for the women activists who had compelled the authorities to perform the autopsy that proved instrumental in convicting Kooky.
President Yoweri Museveni has rarely pardoned convicts. Only a handful of prisoners have been freed on his orders, mostly political prisoners who used to be his opponents. Kooky was a businessman in Kampala.
Uganda's attorney general, Peter Nyombi, said the recommendation to free Kooky had been made by his predecessor and that he could do nothing to have the pardon rescinded. "The matter has been completed," he said.
Women's rights activists said this week they were offended by the picture of Kooky smiling as prison officials released him from his cell near the Ugandan capital. They suspected corruption in the process leading to his pardon.
A report released this month by the International Federation for Human Rights and two Ugandan activist groups said violence against women "remains widespread" in Uganda.
"Continuing violation of women's rights in Uganda is also linked to women's lack of economic empowerment," Sophie Bessis, deputy secretary general at the International Federation for Human Rights, said in a statement this month. "Women hardly own any land and the law prevents them from inheriting property. If the government is serious about tackling discrimination and violence, these issues must be addressed as a matter of priority."
Uganda has a law against domestic violence, but activists say it is weak and has been poorly implemented. They say the women it seeks to protect are often poor and illiterate and therefore unable even to launch complaints.
A group of women lawyers and activists told an emotional news conference in Kampala on Thursday that setting "a cruel murderer" free was an insult to their work. Some threatened to wear black and stage protests on the streets of Kampala.
"Today is one of our days of lamentation," said Maria Nassali, head of the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers.
Marren Akatsa-Bukach, the director of a regional women's advocacy group called EASSI, said it was "a setback for the women's movement that the prerogative of mercy has been abused in this manner."