An American couple is facing the death penalty in Uganda after being charged with child trafficking and torturing one of three foster kids from a Christian ministry there in their care.
Nicholas Spencer and wife Mackenzie Leigh Mathias Spencer, both 32, have been in custody since Dec. 9 after neighbors in the capital Kampala reported their alleged torture to police.
They moved to the East African nation for humanitarian work in 2017, adopting three children the next year from the Welcome Ministry in Jinja City.
That included the alleged victim, a 10-year-old boy who went to a special needs school and is HIV-positive, according to cops and local media.
In announcing their initial arrest, Ugandan police said the Spencers “constantly tortured” the boy from 2020, “which attracted the attention of neighbors,” who captured some of the incidents in videos.
The couple kept the boy barefoot and “naked throughout the day,” and “would occasionally make him squat in an awkward position, with his head facing the floor and hands spread out widely,” police said.
He was also forced to sleep on a wooden platform without a mattress or bedding and only was fed cold meals from the fridge, police said.
The force also stressed that the boy “could have endured more severe acts of torture, away from the camera.”
A caregiver told police that only one child was tortured because the foster parents accused him of being stubborn, hyperactive and mentally unstable, according to local outlet the Daily Monitor.
“I wanted to leave the job, but I knew if I left without doing something about it, the torture would continue,” the caregiver reportedly said.
The Spencers were initially charged on Dec. 9 with aggravated torture, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. They have pleaded not guilty to that charge.
This week, they were hit with an additional charge of aggravated child trafficking, which carries the death penalty if they are convicted, the state prosecutor said on Wednesday.
The couple recruited, transported and kept the child through “abuse of position of vulnerability for purposes of exploitation”, according to the charge sheet.
The new charge was read out Tuesday as the Spencers appeared in a magistrate’s court. However, they were not allowed to make a plea because the more serious charge can only be heard by the High Court.
A date for that higher court hearing has yet to be set for the couple, who were remanded to Luzira Prison, a maximum security facility on the outskirts of the capital Kampala.
The couple’s lawyer dismissed the case as a “fishing expedition” by authorities, claiming they had no evidence.
“Last time we were in court, the state said that inquiries are complete and yet today they added a new charge and said that inquiries are ongoing,” she told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“It doesn’t make sense.”
The lawyer previously requested the Spencers be released on bail, claiming they had unspecified ailments that could not be treated in prison.
Mackenzie Leigh Mathias Spencer previously had a GoFundMe for emergency surgery for “joint and spinal issues” that had already required seven spinal surgeries.
Her appeal detailed how they “moved to East Africa” to do “humanitarian work focused on women’s empowerment and education” but had to travel home to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for the surgery.
“Because we live abroad, we do not have health insurance in the US which means every medical expense for this surgery must be paid out of pocket,” she wrote — getting less than $5,000 of the $28,000 she sought.
Their bail application was denied as prosecutors insisted there were no ailments that could not be treated within Uganda’s prison system.
“They have no community or family ties in Uganda, and the offense with which they are charged currently is of grave nature attracting a penalty of life imprisonment, therefore their likelihood to abscond from bail is really, really high,” prosecutor Joan Keko told the court.
The US Embassy in Kampala said it was aware of reports of the arrest and detention of two US and was monitoring the situation. It declined to comment Wednesday on the latest charge and potential death penalty.
With Post wires