The environment in which Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in Uganda operate is increasingly becoming hostile. This is evident in the twist in attacks with escalating office-break-ins, kidnaps, harassment of civil society organizations and now targeted reprisals to HRDs.
This situation becomes worse when the perpetrators involved are state agents such as the police and elements within judicial system whereby trumped up charges are preferred against HRDs.
The threat to the security of HRDs does not stop at individual level, their organisations, events, close associates, families and communities are targeted too.
A characteristic example is the charges against the four human rights defenders working with Twerwaneho Listeners Club (TLC), a rights organization that advocates and sensitizes citizens on their human rights in Fort Portal, Kabarole district.
The four HRDs, Prosper Businge, Fred Kyaligonza, Jackson Magezi, and Suleiman Trader are facing trumped up charges which is an indirect violation of rights of defenders and also serves to entrench the culture of impunity and rights violations.
On April 27, 2017, Businge and Kyaligonza both HRDs working with TLC, appeared before the Grade one Magistrate’s Court of Fort Portal. The four HRDs were charged with the use of poison, explosives or electrical devices contrary to section 7 (1), 28&22 of the Fish Act Cap 197.
The woes of the four HRDs date to 28thJuly, 2016 when they filed a civil law suit challenging Ferdsult Engineering services Ltd, an Engineering, Procurement and Construction company for its acquisition of 20 crater lakes, evictions of residents and illegal grabbing of land.
Earlier, on April 25, 2017, Magezi and Suleiman were had been arrested and brought before the same court and were also released on bail.
The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Uganda (NCHRD-U) working with Twerwaneho Listeners Club ensured the necessary legal support was afforded to the two to ensure bail was granted on the same day. NCHRD-U is a consortium of organizations advocating for the protection of human rights defenders in the country.
The actions of Ferdsult have consequently affected the livelihoods of people across six sub-counties who were depending on the lakes for food and water.
Some craters include Lakes and sub-counties affected include Lake Saaka in Kichwamba, Lake Mwamba in Busoro, Lake Nyabikere in Rutete and Lake Kifuruka in Kasenda among others.
Ferdsult challenged the suit through filing for an interim order to restrain communities from engaging in fishing activities in the 20 crater lakes. TLC vigorously pursued the matter up to the High Court sitting in Fort Portal.
Ferdsult was later granted an order permitting them to undertake fishing activities in the craters. However, following an appeal by TLC on 7thDecember, 2016 an injunction was issued restraining both the engineering company and the communities from engaging in any activities on the lakes.
In total violation of the court order, Ferdsult Engineering Services Ltd continued to undertake activities on the said crater lakes, to the detriment of the communities and interests of justice.
Nevertheless, legal action is being taken to seek redress.
Against this background, we believe that the charges levied against the four human rights defenders are targeted at intimidating and harassing them to forestall their involvement in advocacy activities against the contested actions of Ferdsult Engineering Services Ltd.
We are further concerned by the manner in which the said charges were preferred against the accused and the process in which the arrest warrants were issued for their detention.
The arrests happened amidst gunshots and with unnecessary force while there wasn’t any apparent resistance from the HRDs.
Human rights defenders have the right to use any lawful means to peacefully defend rights whenever they have reason to believe that guaranteed rights are being violated or threatened. This includes undertaking activities to raise community awareness about the respective violation to empower people to stand up for their rights.
It is unfortunate that as a result of their activism, the four HRDs are now a subject of a flawed judicial process flouted with irregularities.
The charge sheet continues to be variously amended without at some stage the sanctioning of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The NCHRD-U with the TLC takes exception to these occurrences and therefore urges the State agencies to;
• Conduct meaningful, impartial and transparent investigations in the claims that Ferdsult Engineering Services Ltd is violating rights, and take appropriate action.
• Ensure that HRDs are protected from reprisals arising out of their peaceful advocacy on human rights violations occasioned by multi-national entities.
• Unconditionally drop all charges against the four human rights defenders.
This statement was jointly authored by National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Uganda (NCHRD-U) and Tweraneho Listening Club (TLC).
Mr Edward Serucaca is the Advocacy and Networking officer at NCHRD-U