Kampala. The US government yesterday backed a call by Human Rights Watch for an international investigation into last November’s killings in Kasese which left more than 100 people dead.
The renewed calls for an independent inquiry into the bloodbath, almost immediately, drew a sharp response and another flat refusal by the government to determine if Uganda’s armed forces committed mass murder in Kasese.
Released yesterday, HRW said in a second report on the killings committed by both the army and police, especially during the raid on the Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu’s palace, “warrant an independent, impartial fact-finding mission with international expertise”.
“If given unfettered access to witnesses and forensic evidence”, HRW says “independent experts with a fact-finding mission could determine if the massacre on November 27 should be characterised as a “crime against humanity”.
The international NGO was soon joined by the US Embassy which released a statement saying it “takes note” of HRW’s report and is “deeply troubled” by the “disproportionate use of force by security officials” especially the reports that “no effort to remove unarmed people from the compound was done which may have contributed to the death of numerous children”.
“As noted, previously, the embassy urges government to conduct or permit a fair and independent investigation into this incident in the interest of upholding the rule of law. The Ugandan people deserve a full and factual accounting of the events in Kasese, which government has not yet allowed,” the embassy statement, a copy of which was posted on Ambassador Deborah Malac’s twitter handle, said.
Opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye, recently, made a similar call to the European Union (EU) during a closed-door meeting with Mr Koen Vervaeke, the European External Action Service (EEAS) managing director for Africa.
The rights body has also called for the suspension of army and police officials “believed to be most responsible for the killings and other abuses committed during the November violence”.
“Police spokespeople reported the death toll over the two days as 87, including 16 police. Human Rights Watch found the actual number to be much higher – at least 55 people, including at least 14 police, killed on November 26, and more than 100, including at least 15 children, during the attack on the palace compound on November 27.”
But the military spokesman yesterday dismissed the call for an independent investigation into a matter before court as “untenable for now because it is at odds with the sub judice rule.”
Brig. Richard Karemire said Uganda “does not lack independent investigative capability” in case such need arises. Gen. Karemire was addressing journalists at the Government Media Centre, shortly after the report became public.
Without independent investigations, HRW said, the army’s account that the people killed were armed fighters “raises more questions than answers, particularly regarding the actual death toll and why there was no effort to remove unarmed people and children from the compound.”
Ms Maria Burnett, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch said the Kasese killings “which killed more people than any single event since the height of the war in Northern Uganda over a decade ago, should not be swept under the carpet.” Ms Burnett said the people of Kasese, some still searching “for their family members, including children”, “deserve answers and justice for these gruesome killings”.
At least 95 people in six sub-counties of Kasese district, including many families of the people killed, were reported to have been interviewed by HRW which also reviewed video and photographs of the events in compiling the report.
Security forces who took part in the operation in Kasese dismissed any notion of children having been killed during the raid. But the rights body reported that it spoke to 14 families missing 15 children between ages 3 and 14 who were last seen in the palace compound on November 27.
“Human Rights Watch found evidence, including accounts by confidential sources and medical personnel who witnessed the events, that security officials had misrepresented the number of people killed and eliminated evidence of the children’s deaths.”
The call by both the NGO and US government could likely pile more pressure on Kampala in light of earlier attempts by members of the affected community and other human rights defenders in the country to demand for accountability and justice for the victims with international help.
Last year, a group of mainly opposition MPs from Kasese petitioned the International Criminal Court (ICC), asking for an investigation into possible atrocities committed by both the army and police. The ICC later issued a statement acknowledging receipt of their petition and promised to reply.
President Museveni, Maj. Gen Peter Elwelu (the officer who commanded the army units during the palace attack) and Assistant Inspector General of Police Asuman Mugenyi were singled out in the December 9, 2016 petition which government dismissed as “political posturing”. The MPs sought to move the office of the ICC chief prosecutor to commence investigations into the raid on King Charles Mumbere’s palace among other things.
Quoting the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials which require law enforcement officials, including military units, to apply nonviolent means before resorting to force among other requirements, HRW called for the suspension of the officers who commanded the operation pending investigations.
“The government should promptly investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible in accordance with international standards. The government should protect witnesses and compensate the families of victims.”
The rights body, particularly, singled out Maj. Gen. Elwelu who was the face of the joint operation. Gen Elwelu was recently promoted and appointed UPDF’s commander Land Forces. At the time of the killings he was a brigadier.
“He should be removed from command pending a full investigation, and should not participate in any internationally-supported training, conferences or joint exercises until investigations conclude,” Human Rights Watch said.
Gen Karemire, however, said the demand to suspend some commanders from their duties “is uncalled for and unacceptable”.
This report comes after HRW’s 2016 report that was released in January 2017 in which the security forces were accused of carrying out at least 13 extra-judicial killings of people in the Rwenzori region shortly after the February 18, 2016 general elections. In that wider report, the NGO implored Uganda’s international partners to “maintain a strong demand for accountability, including support for an independent and impartial investigation with international experts”.
More than 160 people, including the Rwenzuru King, Charles Wesley Mumbere, have been dragged to court on charges including terrorism, aggravated robbery and murder since the incident.