At least nine unarmed Ugandans were shot dead – many of them in the back – by government security agents in the recent walk-to-work protests despite not being involved in rioting, a new report says. In a report issued yesterday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for a “prompt, independent, and thorough investigation” into the use of lethal force by security forces to counter the protests against the rising cost of living.
“Uganda’s security forces met the recent protests with live fire that killed peaceful demonstrators and even bystanders,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. Supporting the need for an investigation, she added: “For far too long Uganda’s government has allowed a climate of impunity for serious abuses by the police and military.” Police spokesperson Judith Nabakooba said the Professional Standards Unit and the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) were investigating all the shooting incidents. “Once there reports have been compiled, the police will be in position to avail details,” she told Daily Monitor last evening. She added that the Masaka shooting suspect was still in custody. “He will be arraigned in court any time from now,” she said, but declined to comment where the force would welcome an independent investigation team from the African Union and the United Nations.
The HRW report was released a few hours before women in civil society organisations marched peacefully and uneventfully through Kampala to protest against the security agencies’ brutal response to the protests that started last month. The women’s march followed a three-day strike by lawyers against the government’s response, which they said infringed on the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
HRW said it interviewed various eyewitnesses and documented at least nine unarmed people killed by government forces – six in Kampala, two in Gulu and one in Masaka – none of whom were actively involved in the rioting.
The report notes that the “crackdown on the walk-to-work protests has been marked by multiple instances of brutality by the security forces, including killings, beatings and abusive and arbitrary arrest of protesters and uninvolved bystanders”.
In Kampala, for example, HRW says in the report, “one victim was shot dead as he walked along the road; two were killed as they attempted to hide from live bullets in a marketplace, and three people observing the protests died from gunshot wounds in the back as they tried to flee from the violence.”
Although some security agents were injured when pelted with rocks, HRW said it did not find any evidence that protesters had guns or other lethal weapons.
Over 100 people have been injured and more than 600 arrested countrywide since the unrest began on April 11, HRW quotes the police as saying. The New York-based institution has called for an investigation involving international experts, including the United Nations and the African Union.
It is not clear whether grounds exist for an investigation by the International Criminal Court, which indicted six Kenyan officials for their role in the post-election violence that wracked that country in 2008.
The government has not made any commitment to open an inquiry into the violence, nor have the authorities started meaningful criminal investigations into most killings, HRW said. By press time yesterday, Internal Affairs Minister Matia Kasaija said he had not had the opportunity to read the report. He requested to be contacted today for official comment.
Lack of action against government security agents involved in putting down post September 2009 riots, in which at least 40 people were killed – most of them shot dead – was creating impunity for serious crimes committed by government agents, HRW noted.
The organisation has called for Britain and Ireland, which have been jointly funding a programme in public order management and community-based policing, to suspend it pending investigations. “Donors gave the Ugandan security forces a great deal of training and support in public order management before the February 2011 elections,” said Burnett. “But people still get killed in circumstances where there was no need for live ammunition and perpetrators go unpunished.”