YOU probably remember it. That front page newspaper picture of Lady Justice Julia Sebutinde passionately looking at a witness and numbly clasping her lips as her nearly teary eyes intently looked up to the man.
The year was 1999. Sebutinde, then chair of the judicial probe into corruption in the Police, appeared overcome. The witness was shedding tears and the lady justice seemed to struggle to hold back her own.
This was just one of the many sides of one of Uganda’s most prominent high court judges. She sometimes hardened, lashing out at arrogant witnesses and commanding them into submission.
She put the fear of God into many otherwise untouchable souls with her calm but often firm tone.
“Today, I am going to have you for lunch and supper,” she reportedly assured Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) officers in a much publicised probe into mismanagement of the tax body.
Sebutinde chaired three judicial probes – first corruption in the Uganda Police force, followed by the unscrupulous purchase of junk helicopters by the Ministry of Defence and then corruption in the URA.
At each of these probes, she exercised utmost authority, demanding accountability from errant bigwigs who sometimes tended to take her for granted.
It came at a huge cost, often putting herself and her family in danger but like a wounded lioness she soldiered on, trading her own safety for the restoration of sanity to a corruption-ridden country.
Her timely and thorough findings led to a wave of positive reforms in the Police force and the URA; bodies that were, before her judicial intervention, examples of corruption and mismanagement. For such and many other good works, the lady justice has stood out, but seldom been recognised. But it seems her day has come.
Sebutinde was one of two women recently awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for their outstanding work by the University of Edinburgh.
The award presented to her last month recognised her contribution to justice and improvement of society.
She received the award together with Justice Unity Dow, the first female High Court Judge of Botswana and renowned women and child rights activist. Sebutinde acknowledged the honour with gratitude.
“The fact that a foreign university recognised my work and contribution not just nationally but internationally, in this manner was most exhilarating. The work that we do is often thankless and sometimes even unpopular,” she said. Sebutinde and her family were present at Edinburgh University to receive the award that is usually bestowed upon a few outstanding alumni.
For her and those who know her, it has been a long, arduous walk to such a prestigious achievement.
It began in the mid 1970s when she enroled to study law at Makerere University law school at a time when the course was a domain of male bright students. She gave it her all, excelling in a field that seemed to have been a fall-back.
“I chose to study law almost by accident. I thought I could make quite a good doctor but I was weak at chemistry and I quickly realised it was wiser to pursue something else instead. Law seemed the next best thing to me.”
She steadily worked through the three-year course, graduating and later attaining a diploma in legal practice from the Law Development Centre (LDC) in 1978.
Her first job was with the Ministry of Justice where she worked for close to 12 years before enrolling for a master’s degree in law at the University of Edinburgh in the UK. She graduated one year later with a distinction.
She thereafter worked with the Ministry of the Commonwealth in the UK and later joined the Ministry of Justice in the newly independent republic of Namibia. In 1996, she was appointed Judge of the High Court of Uganda and seconded nine years later to the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Two years later, she was appointed the presiding judge of Trial Chamber II, currently engaged in the trial of the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor.
Throughout her life, Sebutinde has projected an exemplary image.
In school she was the humble but much-focused girl that commanded respect among students. “She was a very serious, focused and religious girl. She concentrated on her studies and was somewhat conservative,” recalls Dr Edwadi Kayondo, Sebutinde’s classmate at Budo in the early 1970s.
Justice Geoffrey Kiryabwire, who first met Sebutinde in church (then active in All Saints church activities) during his student days in the 1970s, describes her as very committed.
She works very hard but also loves telling a good joke and sharing a laugh,” says Kiryabwire.
A commissioner at two of Sebutinde’s probes, Kiryabwire recalls the long days and nights spent preparing and sifting through reports.
“We sometimes burnt the midnight candle, the deadlines were tight, the workload was immense and intellectually demanding but she never wavered,” he says.
Sebutinde grew up in what she describes as a humble home, the second eldest of four children. “My father is a retired civil servant. My mother was a full time housewife,” she says.
Hard work, prayer and good manners were to later influence her life. Through Lake Victoria Primary School in Entebbe to Gayaza High School and later Budo, Sebutinde received a holistic education, developing not just academically but also in other important values.
A self-confessed lover of music, Sebutinde says she “enjoys a good book or movie every now and then.”
As a busy mother of two beautiful daughters, the lady justice knows the challenges of juggling a busy job and motherhood. But with the support of her loving and supportive husband, John Sebutinde, they have kept the family going despite the distance. “We travel a lot between our two homes. We try our best to spend the holidays together,” she said.
For a busy mother, Sebutinde is not leaving anything to chance. “When you are a parent trying to raise two daughters in a difficult world, you want to be the best role model that you can possibly be,” she says. She knows her beloved late mother would not have asked more of her.
“I regret that my mother Ida did not live to share such an event. She was a woman, who despite her own limited opportunities, instilled in us the determination that regardless of the challenges along the way, we can achieve anything we want to if we put our minds to it! This is the legacy I have passed on to my children.”
Sebutinde might have a few regrets in life, but there is no doubt that she has made the most of what God, her parents and life itself have given her.
Meet the all-rounder
During her youth, Justice Sebutinde was an active member of All Saints Church, participating in a variety of activities
Sebutinde is on Facebook, a social interactive friends network
She loves Indian cuisine and spicy food. She is a good cook
She is very good at sewing; used to sew her own clothes
Sebutinde is a Michael Jackson fan; she has a reasonable collection of the fallen star’s hits and albums
She was a very good singer, often called upon to assist in the school band at Kings College Budo. Sebutinde sang with the famous school choir- The Nightingales and the Joint Heirs – a Christian youth choir
Pets are her thing. She owns two dogs called Sofi and Cindy
She is extremely neat and clean. During her school days, she would rush to brush her teeth after every meal to her friends’ amusement.
As an organised lady, she always has all her belongings well arranged.
She is very particular
Sebutinde keeps up with the times and knows as much about Beyonce and Usher Raymond as any young person
She follows soccer quite a bit
She is a good swimmer, she has been since her school days and used to take her daughters swimming before they grew too big for her to carry them on her back at the pool
Sebutinde loves a good joke and will join in one
She is very close to and somehow still looks out for her sister Christine even today
For a judge of her status and calibre, Sebutinde is a very approachable person