In August 2010, police officers from the Rapid Response Unit (RRU), brutally beat a 22-year-old robbery suspect from Wakiso District, Frank Ssekanjako, during questioning. Police later took Ssekanjako to Mulago hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The official post mortem report that I saw indicated that Ssekanjako’s body had an array of fresh injuries.
Three implicated RRU officers were arrested in 2010, charged with murder, and detained for six months, then freed on bail and never brought to trial. The case technically remains pending before Makindye Magistrate Court.
Ssekanjako’s family has never had justice and other suspects who were tortured that day remain fearful. Over the years, in meetings with Human Rights Watch, police and prosecutors blamed one another for the total absence of progress in the case.
Many will remember that in December 2011, then Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura disbanded RRU, stating explicitly that the decision was in part due to human rights violations by RRU officers.
Now, after numerous allegations of torture at Nalufenya – a police post in Jinja with a horrific reputation – police are transferring detainees to other facilities, and the Uganda Law Society has called for closing Nalufenya.
Closing Nalufenya may be a good idea, but it will not address the many cases of torture of detainees, just as disbanding RRU did nothing for Ssekanjako’s family. More than a decade, hundreds of torture victims have told me of sickly similar treatment during interrogations by police officers at various notorious detention facilities. Detainees were beaten for days while in stress positions with their hands cuffed under their legs. Police would beat detainees with batons, sticks, glass bottles, bats, metal pipes, padlocks, table legs, and other objects, often to force a confession.
The locations of these awful interrogations – Clement Hill, Summit View, Kireka, Nalufenya – and names and composition of the units – Wembley, RRU, VCCU, JATT, Flying Squad – have changed over time, but the one clear consistency has been the near total absence of accountability for the torture of suspects. Locations close, units change name, but allegations of horrific beatings and injuries re-emerge.
The government has a clear responsibility to investigate allegations of abuses by its security forces and to hold those responsible accountable. Prosecutors should be bringing torture charges under Uganda’s Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act – a woefully underutilised tool for routing out abusive officers and their commanders.
But investigating allegations of torture and holding police officers accountable is also smart policing. Forced confessions are unreliable. The goal of any criminal investigation should be to ensure that the guilty person is imprisoned.
By relying on torture and false confessions, police may well be putting innocent people behind bars for a long time – especially likely given Uganda’s very prolonged remand times – while guilty parties roam the streets.
Closing Nalufenya or renaming police units and shifting officers won’t address Uganda’s torture problem, just as disbanding RRU and shifting suspects from Kireka to Jinja didn’t address the “human rights problem” General Kayihura admitted to in 2011.
Past promises from police leadership – a toll-free phone line for torture complaints, a human rights desk within police headquarters, or more anti-torture workshops for police – have no impact if torture allegations are consistently swept under the rug and families like Ssekanjako’s never see the police officers who allegedly tortured and killed their son put on trial.
New police leadership and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions need to work together on serious investigations into the many allegations of torture in Nalufenya and other facilities such as Kireka – particularly when VCCU and then RRU - were operational.
Government officials should comply with the provisions of Uganda’s Constitution and fulfil their core obligations under international human rights law – in particular the absolute prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. They should systemically address allegations of torture by security services and encourage victims to come forward.
Anything short of this will only implicitly condone police abuses in Nalufenya and elsewhere. And in a few years, there will be more victims bearing terrible wounds, and a new “notorious” location that needs to be shut down because of all the bad press.
Ms Burnett is the East and Horn of Africa Director at Human Rights Watch.