On June 13, 2016, 31 local and international organisations petitioned Gen Kale Kayihura, the Inspector General of Police, about the way the police had handled the wave of break-ins at different offices of civil society organisations across the country.
“We are particularly concerned by the manner in which the Uganda Police Force (UPF) has responded – during investigations and through public statements –regarding these incidents. Recent break-ins appear to form part of a longer term, systemic, and worsening pattern of attacks on Ugandan civil society organizations targeting their legitimate and valuable work,” the letter read in part.
The letter further indicated that Police had not made progress as far as fulfilling its obligations to investigate such incidents to bring perpetrators to justice.
“Each incident has been reported to police in a timely fashion. But police efforts to duly investigate and collect evidence such as witness statements, DNA samples, and closed circuit security footage, have been limited and lacked follow-up,” the letter added.
The letter was copied to the Minister for Internal Affairs, Gen Jeje Odongo, the United States Ambassador Deborah Malac, Head of European Union Delegation to Uganda Kristian Schmidt and Ms Alison Blackburne, then British High Commissioner to Uganda.
Over the past five years there has been a wave of break-ins into the premises of non-governmental organizations, mostly those specialising in protecting human rights.
Despite the Uganda Police Force saying it has commissioned investigations into most of the incidents, the leaders of the affected organizations say there has hardly been any progress on this front, and not a single report detailing the progress of investigations has been issued.
They accuse the police and the government of being insensitive to the plight of civil society organisations at best, and at worst they say the State could be complicit in the break-ins. The police deny the accusations and say they are actively working to remedy the situation.
Since 2012, about 24 premises of NGOs and Civil Society Organisations have been broken into but Police has never concluded any of the investigations, a matrix compiled by National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda (NCHRDU), indicates.
Ms Cissy Kagaba, the Executive Director of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, says the Police have never given her an investigation report into a break-in incident into her office premises that happened on October 10, 2013.
The thieves made away with five desk-top computers, eight laptops and the internet server and about Shs7m after vandalizing the safe.
On the night of the break-in, Ms Kagaba says, the guard was given a drink that put him to sleep and the security company has since denied any involvement.
“My concern is safety of all the Ugandans and their property because it’s the constitutional mandate of the police to safeguards the lives of Ugandans and their property,” Ms Kagaba says.
She says it is difficult to tell whether some of these office break-ins were deliberate or not.
“If a matter can take all these years and it’s to do with NGOs dealing with governance and human rights. It is disturbing and disheartening if the police don’t come out to investigate,” Ms Kagaba says.
She says the government institutions like Police should be able to work but if there is total failure then the Ministry of Internal Affairs should interest itself into these security matters.
“If it was a single case that would be understandable but there is a tread involving a number of NGOs which handle issues that might not be desirable to the regime,” Ms Kagaba adds.
In 2012, the offices of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) were broken into and Shs45million was stolen alongside other items including: 11 Samsung mobile phones, 11 laptop computers, and several land tittles for clients, one projector and a hard drive for the backup computer.
This newspaper understands that the Police launched some investigations into the matter but no report has been provided.
On May 5, 2014, the offices of the Human Rights Network Uganda (HURINET) were broken into and the thieves made away with vital documents, 25 Dell Monitors, three projectors, four laptops and four Sony Cameras.
According to the (HURINET) HURINET-Uganda executive director, Mr Mohammed Ndifuna, all cases have been reported to police but their efforts have regrettably not gone beyond the preliminary investigations.
“We suffered a break-in in 2014 and we are still waiting for results from the police investigations,” Mr Ndifuna says.
He adds: “Human rights defenders in Uganda have faced a spate of office breaks that led to loss of information holding gadgets and some cases loss of lives.”
Mr Ndifuna, who doubles as the Chairperson Board of directors of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders, says no culprits have been apprehended and brought to book.
Ms Sylvia Namubiru Mukasa, the executive director of Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET), whose offices are the latest to be vandalized on February 2, this year, says a security guard working with Donworld, a private security, was the key suspect.
She says the police came to the scene of crime, and took statements and collected some exhibits. “Up to now the police have not given any update,” she adds.
Ms Namubiru says the police investigations are very slow and the owners normally end up losing their property.
To avert the current trend of office break-ins, Namubiru says there is need to regulate the private security firms.
“The security firms just recruit thieves because the system of verification upon recruitment is poor,” she says.
As a consequence, she says the unsuspecting members of the NGO world fall prey to the predator (security firms).
“We are very vulnerable; we look at the credentials of these security firms to know whether they are registered,” she says, adding that some companies don’t do surveillance on their guards to establish whether they are still where they were deployed or not.
She said they lost laptops and Shs3.5million as result of the break-in involving a security guard.
On May 22, 2016, intruders broke into the offices of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), an organization that provides legal support and representation to marginalized people. The assailants beat to death the security guard, Emmanuel Arituha, ransacked the offices of the director and the deputy director, and stole documents and a television screen. The assailants did not take computers, laptops and other electronic gadgets.
Also, on June 29 2015, the offices of Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ-Uganda) were raided by unidentified people who broke one of the windows to gain access to the building. The organisation lost vital information and equipment. Also, Shs 5 m and travel documents were stolen. Although the matter was reported to Rubaga Police Post, no further investigations and arrests have since been made.
The executive director, Mr Robert Ssempala, says they have since relocated there office to another Kampala suburb following a number of raids on their office premises.
“We feel that government has not done enough to protect us and we would like a law on protection of Human rights defenders passed, government should be seized by the high rate of criminality targeting the NGO sector and the police should be tasked to show results on these issues,” says Mr Ndifuna.
However, Mr Ndifuna advises his colleagues to equip themselves with the necessary personal safety and organizational security skills.
“Where resources permit, specialized security devices should be installed on the office premises of these organizations,” he adds.
Other organisations that have suffered break-ins include the Umbrella for Journalists in Kasese, Refugee Law Project, Inter Religious Council of Uganda, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, CSBAG, Action For Community Development (ACODEV) and New Eden Christian Foundation.
The others are Reach the Youth Uganda, Action Group for Health Human Rights and HIV/AIDS (AGHA), Action Aid International Uganda, Environmental Alert, Land and Equity Movement in Uganda (LEMU) and Uganda Road Sector Support Initiative.
Ms Brenda Kugonza, the national coordinator at National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders Uganda (NCHRDU), says: “It is the duty of the state to enable HRDs engage freely in their activities, protect them when under threat from attempts of office break-ins, refrain from creating obstacles to their work, roughly investigate violations of their rights and fight against impunity.”
Mr Erasmus Twaruhuka, the director in charge of Human Rights and Legal services in the Uganda police force, acknowledged that investigations into offices break-ins have stalled.
“I know that matter and it has come up several times in our discussions. We have many cases; the 14 are just in Kampala but there many others outside Kampala,” Mr Twaruhuka said, adding that majority of the cases have not been investigated.
However, he said three cases have been fully investigated and some culprits have been convicted.
“There are two cases where the culprits were convicted but in the other case, the suspect was acquitted due to lack of evidence pinning him,” Mr Twaruhuka added.
Mr Twaruhuka, however, cannot say exactly in which cases culprits were convicted, saying he requires more time to gather the details. He says, however, that none of the two cases in which suspects were arrested and convicted was in Kampala.
He stresses, based on this, that it is not accurate to say all cases have not been investigated or that the government is not interested in investigating the matter. He says it is even “ridiculous” to conclude that the government could have a hand in the office break-ins.
“I have called for all files regarding office break-ins into human rights organization to see the loopholes and also ascertain whether we can close some files,” he said.
“I share the same concern that this is a matter that should be investigated and concluded,” he said.
“The investigations are always a shared responsibility and police will always depend on hints,” he said.
On security firms, Mr Twaruhuka says some of them are compromised and are part of the high rate of criminality.
As a result, he says, the Police Force has established a special unit to handle private security firms.
“We regulate all the private security firms and we are taking all the finger prints of all security guards for easy tracing,” Mr Twaruhuka said.
He decried the management style of the some private security firms, saying that one security guard can leave a company after committing an offence, only to be admitted in another security firm.
With all these loopholes, the police will have to put in a lot of efforts, coupled with boosting their capacity to investigate crimes that require high levels of sophistication given that they have not been able to conclude investigations even when CCTV footage is available.
But even as Mr Twaruhuka extolls his defence of the Police Force in this regard, the police’s record on human rights is being faulted by a number of players.
“Civic space in Uganda has been gradually but seriously deteriorating, particularly since the 2016 presidential elections. NGOs and the media have come under increased pressure and NGO break-ins are part of this trend,” says Mr Hassan Shire, the executive director of Defend Defenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project).
He urges the authorities to treat this trend seriously and conduct prompt, transparent and independent investigations into break-ins to fulfil their obligations under Uganda’s laws.
“NGOs across the sub-region have suffered serious setbacks in the form of repressive legislation, the misuse of the threat of terrorism to restrict the space for fundamental freedoms to be exercised, and increasing threats, intimidation and attacks against human rights defenders during crises, conflicts and electoral periods,” Mr Shire adds.