Ugandan diplomats to be sentenced over fraud, tax evasion

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Minister of foreign affairs Henry Okello Oryem

Minister of foreign affairs Henry Okello Oryem

Diplomats are exempt from paying duties and taxes on cars, food and electrical appliances that they bring into the country, but they are not allowed to abuse the privilege.

According to the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Okello Oryem, the Government received a guilty verdict for the two unnamed diplomats whose conduct has caused embarrassment.

?The trial of the two has been concluded and they will soon be sentenced. I have been informed that crimes of that nature carry a jail term ranging from seven to 14 years,? Oryem told lawmakers on the foreign affairs committee on Wednesday.

However, MPs heard that upon smelling a rat, one of the diplomats, only identified as Ndawula, escaped the clutches of the UK law enforcement officers and is suspected to be on the run.

?We have already alerted Interpol and hopefully he will be extradited to the UK to face justice,? Oryem said.

According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961), diplomats enjoy immunity from legal prosecution in host countries unless their home countries choose to waive it.

However, last year, Oryem was quoted in the media saying President Yoweri Museveni had acceded to a request by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to have the duo?s diplomatic immunity waived to facilitate their prosecution.

Although Oryem did not reveal the nitty-gritty of the two diplomats? alleged crimes, sources inside the committee of foreign affairs told New Vision that the suspects had turned their diplomatic privileges into a lucrative business venture.

They were found to have abused diplomatic privileges by ordering large quantities of duty-free goods and later selling them on the black market, thus making the British government incur losses in terms of lost tax revenue.

?It is embarrassing because this arrangement is a matter of courtesy. They made over ?2m (about sh8.6b) and the UK system was able to track them for a long time,? committee chairperson Dr. Sam Okuonzi told New Vision.

The conviction of the two diplomats is expected to end an unsavoury chapter at Uganda?s UK mission, which began in 2008 when Her Majesty the Queen?s revenue and customs officials raised a red flag over abuse of diplomatic privileges. The investigation team found that the fraud had taken place for a number of years.

In a related development, Okuonzi revealed that lawmakers, during oversight visits to missions in Cairo in Egypt and Rome in Italy late last year, stumbled upon infighting and intrigue that has paralysed the two embassies.

In Rome, Okuonzi said the head of mission, Grace Akello and her deputy, Dr. Mumtaz Kassam, had left the mission paralysed due to their personal feuds. MPs were told that Akello was too occupied with her studies at a university in Rome to care about her duties.

?Mumtaz and Akello are not on talking terms. Even when MPs visited, Akello never informed her deputy,? Okuonzi said.

In Cairo, Ambassador Richard Angualia is at loggerheads with mission staff who accuse him of high-handedness. However, Angualia has attributed his woes to tribal tensions, saying people who do not speak his language have ganged up against him.

Uganda?s ambassador in Khartoum, Sudan, Dr. Abraham Isamat, has been in and out of jail in Uganda over court costs arising out of an election petition he lost.

?As a diplomat, going to jail puts your credibility to test. It is an awkward situation,? Oryem said.

Oryem attributed the strife at missions to conflict between accounting officers and ambassadors about controlling funds.

?Some heads of missions think they should be in charge of finances and when they are told otherwise, they think their staff are being insolent,? he said.

By Moses Walubiri, The New Vision

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