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American foster parents detained in Uganda hit with new child trafficking charge that carries death penalty

An American couple fostering children in Uganda were newly charged with trafficking and could be sentenced to death if convicted on allegations they abused a 10-year-old in their care.

American foster parents detained in Uganda were hit with a new child trafficking charge Tuesday that carries the death penalty amid allegations they tortured a 10-year-old boy in their care in the African nation. 

Nicholas Spencer and his wife, Mackenzie Leigh Mathias Spencer, both 32, have been in custody since Dec. 9 when they were charged with aggravated torture of a child, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. 

On Tuesday, during a magistrate court hearing, an additional charge of child trafficking was read to the couple, but they were not yet allowed to enter a plea because the case must be heard in High Court, Reuters reported, citing a spokesperson for the public prosecutor’s office. 

The child trafficking charge carries a possible death penalty if they are convicted. 

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The couple had been remanded to Luzira Prison, a maximum-security facility on the outskirts of the capital Kampala, Monitor reported. On Tuesday, Chief Magistrate Sarah Tusiime denied them bond. 

The couple is accused of making a 10-year-old boy living in their home through the foster care system in the capital of Kampala sleep on a wooden platform with no mattress or bedding, Ugandan prosecutor Joan Keko told Reuters. 

It is also alleged that the boy was stripped naked and spent his entire days without clothes or shoes and that he was given cold food and was not attending school. 

The boy reportedly is HIV positive and was enrolled at a school for special needs children. 

Police said when they raided the couple’s home, video footage was recovered showing the boy had also been forced to squat in an "awkward position." 

"Our team of investigators established, that the couple kept the victim barefoot, and naked throughout the day, would occasionally make him squat in an awkward position, with his head facing the floor and hands spread out widely, he spent his nights on a wooden platform, without a mattress or beddings and was served cold meals from the fridge," the Uganda Police Force said in a statement Dec. 13. "We believe, the victim could have endured more severe acts of torture, away from the camera." 

The couple’s attorney called the case a "fishing expedition," claiming prosecutors have 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," the lawyer told AFP. "It doesn't make sense."

According to the new charging sheet, prosecutors further allege the couple recruited, transported and kept the 10-year-old child through "abuse of position of vulnerability for purposes of exploitation." 

The Spencers, both U.S. citizens, reportedly first came to Uganda in 2017. A year later, they fostered three children, one of whom is the alleged victim in the abuse and trafficking case. 

Police were tipped off by neighbors of the alleged "constant" abuse occurring between 2020 and 2022. 

Keko said the couple’s visas in Uganda had expired, and they did not have any work permits. The prosecutor added that they were renting in the suburbs of Kampala, which made them a flight risk.

When they first arrived in the east African country, the couple reportedly worked for a US-based non-profit in the town of Jinja before moving to Naguru, an upscale suburb of Kampala, to work at a start-up. 

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