Nalufenya: A look inside the dreaded police station
What you need to know:
- Sunday Monitor spoke to 10 people who have fallen victim to the now widely publicised torture at Nalufenya. Their testimonies are as harrowing as they are strikingly similar.
- The news that more than 140 Rwenzururu Kingdom loyalists arrested following the violence in the region last year had been driven, while completely naked from Kasese, for about 426kms to Nalufenya, was shocking but the worst was yet to come.
- Under the Anti-Torture Act, government officials can be prosecuted in their individual capacity if found culpable of torturing anyone. The suspects detained at Nalufenya, he said, told them during the visit that they had been tortured, but couldn’t say where since they were blind-folded during the physical assault.
Kampala. Most Ugandans have only recently found out that Nalufenya, located close to the source of the River Nile in Jinja, is not a happy place. But for many people in Busoga, this has been the reality at least since the early 1800s.
Residents of Jinja say Nalufenya was the place where the chief of Budondo, then an independent chiefdom within Busoga, used to put his condemned subjects to death by burning.
The Lusoga word “kufenya” means to “burn to ashes”. Nalufenya, therefore, means a place where things, and in this case people, are burnt to ashes.
The British colonialists eventually arrived around the close of the 19th century with their own methods of dealing with dissent, relegating methods like burning people to ashes to the dung heap of history.
The name “Nalunfenya”, local’s say, may also have originated from the corruption of two English words “Nile Ferry”. The area is reportedly the place boats, barges and ferries crossed from east or west of the River Nile before the construction of the current bridge.
In 1954, after the opening of the Owen Falls Dam, there was need for providing security, hence the establishment of Nalufenya Police Station. Then in the 1990s, during the extension of the dam, the original police station was relocated to its current place to pave way for the digging of the Kiira Dam channel.
Residents of Jinja say Nalufenya was a “normal” police post until the early 2000s when, after containing the tide of crime in Kampala, Operation Wembley under the command of Brig Elly Kayanja set up a base at the facility. A number of suspects arrested during the operation that gained notoriety for its shoot-to-kill policy were detained there, and soon allegations of victimization and torture filtered through.
The new Nalufenya
In the official police structure, Nalufenya Special Investigations Centre (NSIC) is under the Special Investigations Division (SID), but currently, all SID officers, including the commander, were transferred.
Mr Henry Mugumya, the head of SID, was sent for a course at Bwebajja Police Training School, but the course has yet to start. He did not have a deputy by the time he was transferred. Another 150 officers in SID were last month ordered back to the police headquarters for redeployment.
Nalufenya is now managed by the Flying Squad Unit headed by Mr Herbert Muhangi, an assistant commissioner of police, who reports directly to the Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura. Mr Muhangi is deputised by Mr Francis Olugu, also assistant commissioner of police.
The other officers at Nalufenya are operatives that joined police as special police constables.
The facility depends on the structure of the Flying Squad Unit, which is based at their headquarters in Metropolitan Police building in Kampala. The outer ring of Nalufenya is now managed by officers in Field Force Police Directorate, but they are not allowed to access the interior of one of the most tightly-guarded facilities in the country.
The facility is cordoned off with iron sheets with armoured vehicles commonly known as mambas stationed in and outside the facility, which also boasts of a helipad.
The facility, those who have accessed it say, has a main building, a double-storied structure, with offices and cells in the basement.
Next to the main building, those who know the geography of the place, told Sunday Monitor, is another building, in front of which lies the imposing tent reserved for use by IGP Kayihura when he visits.
Those who have been incarcerated there say inmates for most of the time are kept in the cells and are only allowed out for a short time to wash their buckets, plates and cups. Fierce dogs play a role in guarding the facility and ensuring that inmates, who are kept in an L-shaped cell, do not attempt to escape.
A former detainee who was kept for weeks at the facility said it was hard to determine whether the facility is under the control of the police’s Special Investigation Division (SID), Flying Squad, Special Investigation Division (SID) or the Special Forces Command (SFC), which, among other things, guards President Museveni and other key state installations.
“Welcome to Nalufenya”
Sunday Monitor spoke to 10 people who have fallen victim to the now widely publicised torture at Nalufenya. Their testimonies are as harrowing as they are strikingly similar.
To each of the victims who have undergone torture at the facility, “Welcome to Nalufenya” is one episode they will never forget.
Speaking to these victims, this is the picture we drew of the episode: The beating began almost immediately on arrival at the facility. It involved slapping, punching and kicking; others used sticks, wires, plastic cables and rifle butts. The worst of the operatives had what one former detainee describes as small pangas.
After what seemed like an eternity, the victims were either bleeding or lying unconscious. They could barely walk. Each of them was then handed a plate and a cup and then led to the cells.
Mr Abubaker Male, one of the victims we talked to, had at least expected his particulars to be recorded before being ushered into the cells of Nalufenya. This was not done.
Mr Male spent a month-and-a-half at Nalufenya facility. The father of “many children” as he describes himself, was picked outside Luzira prison where he had gone to visit the Muslim clerics incarcerated there on different charges, including murder and terrorism.
After about 45 days, Mr Male was transferred to the cells of Police’s Special Investigation Unit, Kireka, where he spent another three days before being released. Mr Male was one of the 10 men who underwent “Welcome to Nalufenya” on the same night, and by the time he was released, he was sufficiently enfeebled to require treatment in India. Until now, his vision is labored.
“It depends on the pressure your people (friends, relatives and family) put on police to have you released. I met people who had been in Nalufenya for more than a year, some six months and I left them there,” he said.
Mr Male, however, still counts himself lucky that he was not subjected to the worst forms of torture possible at Nalufenya. By now you, have already seen grisly images of suspects in the investigation of slain former police spokesperson Andrew Felix Kaweesi, his bodyguard and driver, arriving at Nakawa Chief Magistrates Court premises, some limping and others displaying to the world, the scars of their time at Nalufenya.
Kamwenge Town Council Mayor Geoffrey Byamukama, one of the suspects in that investigation, had pictures of him nursing deep septic wounds on his knees and ankles at Nakasero Hospital, Kampala, where he has been for more than a month. The politician’s hospital room was being tightly guarded by the police and entry restricted even to family members.
Mr Jamil Mukulu, the leader of the ultra-Islamic Allied Democratic Forces, which was accused of employing terrorist tactics in its fight against the government in 2016, accused the police before the Chief Magistrate’s Court in Jinja of gruesome torture. He said he had been forced to “consume things” prohibited by his faith - pork and alcohol. The rebel leader, arguably the most high profile detainee in the custody of the Uganda government, called Nalufenya a “slaughterhouse” and “pigsty”. He is currently remanded in Luzira prison.
Whereas Nalufenya was seemingly set aside for detainees like Mr Mukulu, who may perhaps even have the capacity to organise a prison break, there have been accounts of even political detainees being held there.
Nakawa Division MP Michael Kabaziguruka was one of the politicians who were taken to the facility shortly after his electoral victory last year. Mr Kabaziguruka, who has since 2011 been accused of plotting to overthrow the government – treason – did not enter the cells at Nalufenya, but he still has “chilling” stories to tell about the facility.
“I was taken to Nalufenya by an SSP (special superintendent of police) but the humiliation he went through to deliver me there left me very worried about what happens there,” Mr Kabaziguruka says.
The senior police officer, who Mr Kabaziguruka declines to name, was “subjected to humiliating body searches at different points before being allowed to deliver me there.”
Before being allowed to access the facility, Mr Kabaziguruka says, the SSP spent about 10 minutes making phone calls “literally pleading to be allowed in”.
Ms Nassim Nattabi, not in any way a famous political activist, was one of six people who have campaigned for Dr Kizza Besigye in recent years, who were rounded up and detained at a police station. While there, she says, an inmate related to them what had happened to her colleague who had been detained at Nalufenya.
“I decided to quit activism and look at other options in life just because of that experience,” Ms Nattabi told Sunday Monitor.
Whereas the spotlight is currently on Nalufenya, however, Mr Kabaziguruka says “more brutal torture” takes place in other police and military-run “safe houses”, a word that is scarcely in in these days but gained notoriety at the turn of the century with regards to torture allegations.
As for Nalufenya, those who have had the misfortune of being tortured there may argue that the place is perhaps condemned, and the only thing that can change there is the manner of inflicting pain.
What police say
Police spokesman Asan Kasingye offered a terse response to Sunday Monitor regarding Nalufenya.
“For security reasons, I am unable to provide information, especially on the number of suspects we are keeping there. As for torture claims, I issued a press statement on the matter, which Daily Monitor has. But suffice it to say is that Nalufenya is a gazetted police facility and it operates within the laws of this country like any other police station,” Mr Kasingye said.
The statement Mr Kasingye refers to addresses the torture claims by the 13 suspects in the Kaweesi murder case by expressly denying them. It, however, does not address past incidents or why the police detain suspects in that facility without being charged for months. Also, it does not explain why police continued to detain the 13 suspects in the Kaweesi murder case at Nalufenya yet the Jinja Chief Magistrates Court had remanded them to Luzira.
A senior police officer at Mr Kasingye’s rank, in an off the record discussion, was surprised that the allegations about Nalufenya had shocked Ugandans or even the journalist. He told our reporter that whatever was happening or allegedly happening at Nalufenya had long happened at SIU Kireka.
“Some of these people are murderers, terrorists etc, do you want us to release them to the public after 48-hours because there is no sufficient evidence?” He added: “Any serious judge and Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) will agree with us that these 48 hours are not enough.”
The Constitution provides 48 hours within which the police must get a suspect arraigned before court or, in case the evidence is not sufficient to support a court charge, to release the suspect on bond as investigations continue. But this requirement has been overlooked in many circumstances, citing the reasons the unnamed police officer offers above, and calls have been made for the law to be relaxed in cases which may require elaborate investigations.
In UHRC’s 2016 report, which assessed the state of human rights and freedoms in the country during 2015, detention beyond 48 hours was the second most complained about violation after the violation of freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Testimonies from Nalufenya
We tried to speak to Hajj Kaunda as he is popularly known to get his Nalufenya story. He changed his mind at the last minute.
“Other people have told you what happened. They arrested me and did what they wanted. I leave the rest to God,” he said.
Another former detainee at Nalufenya kept setting meetings only to switch off his phone at the last minute.
Six days, on March 23, after the murder of former police spokesperson Andrew Felix Kaweesi, his driver and bodyguard, police cordoned off the home of Godfrey Musisi and his wife Grace Resty Nankya in Namugongo, Wakiso District.
After mounting a search, police officers in uniform and civilian attire arrested Mr Musisi, Ms Nankya and three others people—Mr Bernard Mutebi 19, Steward Ainebyona, 18, both brick layers and Mr George Kimbugwe, a tenant at the couple’s home. The group was taken to Nalufenya where they spent a month and half being interrogated.
None of them was formally charged before court after 48 hours but more than 45 days later, on their release. Mr Musisi, however, remained incarcerated. It was after the Jinja High Court ordered Mr Muhangi to produce Mr Musisi that police relented and presented him to court where he was charged not for the charges he had and his family members had been indicted for or for what his family members had been charged but the murder of an unnamed man.
We traced Ms Nankya, but she declined to be interviewed fearing repercussions from both her husband’s relatives and police. She accused a local newspaper of fabricating an interview with her shortly after her release, which she claims landed her in trouble.
Mr Malcolm Lukwiya’s Nalufenya journey started in July, 2015 from Kenya where he was arrested with others in Lower Kabete, Nairobi.
In July 2015, Mr Lukwiya writes on his blog that he was transported from the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) custody to Nalufenya concealed inside the boot of an ATPU car.
The then 19-year old spent 15 days at Nalufenya and was only rescued after Kenya’s Milimani Law Courts issued an order demanding his production.
The news that more than 140 Rwenzururu Kingdom loyalists arrested following the violence in the region last year had been driven, while completely naked from Kasese, for about 426kms to Nalufenya, was shocking but the worst was yet to come.
The suspects, after being detained at Nalufenya much longer than 48-hours, a violation of their rights, were brought to court with festered wounds on their limbs, among other things.
Lawyers representing them led by Caleb Alaka, said their clients had been tortured, prompting Jinja Chief Magistrate Francis Kaggwa to order for an investigation of the allegations. Almost six months later, nothing has come through of the said investigations yet more suspects detained at the facility return with worse stories.
Human Rights Lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi and his associates have filed a complaint with UHRC demanding that, among others, African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (ACTV) be given access to Luzira prison to document the torture allegations of the 13 suspects in the Kaweesi murder case.
“Nalufenya doesn’t need to be closed because if they do, they will open another facility. Nalufenya is a government facility in which people should not be detained beyond 48-hours or tortured. At Nalufenya, they should instead uphold the constitutional standards of detaining a suspect,” Mr Rwakafuzi said.
“Safe houses are becoming rare and now they use Nalufenya, which is far away from the prodding eyes of Kampala journalists. Kayihura and quote me on that, goes to Nalufenya in his helicopter to interrogate suspects, which he would find hard to do at Kireka,” he added.
Ms Aisha Ampiire was arrested alongside her husband Abdul Rashid Mbaziira, one of the 13 suspects in Kaweesi’s murder. While her husband was taken to Nalufenya and allegedly tortured, Ms Ampiire survived the facility but not the torture.
Sunday Monitor interviewed her outside the rural Naggalama Police station where she had gone to pick her children police had taken when they arrested her family.
Ms Ampiire, who was released after six days in custody, still bleeds from the nose, mouth and struggles to hear following the beatings and torture she says she sustained at police’s Special Investigative Unit, Kireka.
The only treatment Ms Ampiire had received at the time of our interview were pain killers from Naggalama Police Station.
“I was thoroughly beaten by men in Kireka, my ears were pierced, my nose and mouth were hit. I have no one to help me now,” she said. “If our husband could be released, maybe he could help us,” she said.
In an interview with Sunday Monitor, Mr Meddie Mulumba, a commissioner with UHRC, which visited Nalufenya recently, said they had told police officials at Nalufenya that they would be held responsible as individuals after it emerged they hold detainees incommunicado.
Under the Anti-Torture Act, government officials can be prosecuted in their individual capacity if found culpable of torturing anyone. The suspects detained at Nalufenya, he said, told them during the visit that they had been tortured, but couldn’t say where since they were blind-folded during the physical assault.