Counting the costs of lockdown rights abuses

UPDF soldiers intercept people for allegedly defying the presidential guidelines on observing curfew hours in Kalerwe, Kampala, on April 10. PHOTO | ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • As the coronavirus spread rapidly around the world and anxious governments responded swiftly to contain the pandemic, the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva, alarmed by the gravity of some of the measures imposed from Asia to US to Europe to Africa, warned on April 20 of human rights abuses that appeared to transgress key basic freedoms.

The first lockdown measures to contain the spread of Covid-19, pronounced on March 18, were emphatic.

Among the raft of stringent measures was the closure of all institutions of learning, banning all public gatherings, and stopping all outbound movement of Ugandans until further notice.

Without clarity on how some of these measures were to be enforced, the President often had to give further clarification on how to comply with them.

Since the government announced first a partial and subsequently a total lockdown to enforce the sets of measures under the Public Health Act of 1935, security personnel have used excessive force to commit gross human rights violations.

There have also been various documented cases of attacks by members of the public on the security personnel. Whether there will be an audit or wide-ranging enquiry into the matter is immaterial for now as government, like elsewhere in the world, is preoccupied with containing the coronavirus.

Eric Mutasiga died last week at Mulago National Referral Hospital, bringing to seven the number of people killed by security personnel during enforcement of the Covid-19 measures in the last three months.

These crimes are some of the most egregious forms of human rights abuses as the right to life is sacrosanct.

A husband, father of three, and head teacher of Merry Times Primary School in Mukono District, Mutasiga was shot mid-last month at Wantoni in Mukono District, after he intervened in the arrest of his employee whom police had roughed up for reportedly being outside past the curfew time of 7pm.

Police argued that the deceased attempted to stop police from enforcing an arrest and tried to snatch keys from the motorcycle ignition, which their officers were using to transport the suspect.

However, there are more than five witnesses who contrast police’s account of the events leading to the shooting.

Mr Alex Mubendo whom police had arrested prompting Mutasiga’s intervention recounted that upon booking him at police, the arresting officer threatened him if he provided a ‘contradicting account.’

“The deceased tried to talking to them calmly, he even begged to talk to them in the language they understand well [paying a small bribe] but that is when other people started gathering,” Mr Mubendo narrated.

“The officer with the gun first shot two bullets in the air, then shot another which caught him (Mubendo) in the thigh), and then shot another two bullets in the air. How can you shoot five bullets if someone was trying to grab their keys as they claimed,” he added.

“When we reached police, they said I would not be released if I didn’t say that they were provoked.” New script, same old story.

Both police and the army claim that they have taken punitive measures against errant officers.

Mr Jacob Mumbya, a lawyer, said the violations registered during the Covid-19 lockdown were exacerbated by the wide knowledge gap about human rights awareness on both the side of the public and security personnel.

“The violations we saw or know of are merely a manifestation of those we did not see or will know about much later,” Mr Mumbya argued.
“If a father or mother was arrested and detained for walking home past curfew hours, that has impact on the people they are fending for; they will stay hungry or won’t get medical treatment if needed. The thing with some human rights is that they are intertwined, so when you violate one, you might violate one or two others,” he said.

Besides the shootings and security personnel cruelly beating up people, thousands of people rounded up, especially during night operations have been detained at Kitalya prison for men and Kigo prison for the women.

People who have been to the Kitalya prison say its congested and a stark contrast of the social distancing measures in the presidential directives.

When President Museveni first announced a lockdown and spelt out the categories of people—essential services—who would remain working within the set guidelines, the justice sector was not among those prioritised.

“People were being arrested, appearing in court without representation, and many of whom were remanded. The lawyers, prosecutors, magistrates/judges were not among the essential services, so it was mess,” Ms Jane Frances Abodo, the director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), said in an interview last week.

Justice Abodo said in the early days of the total lockdown, “it was police ferrying around judges, magistrates and prosecutors” to administer justice otherwise the situation could have been messier.

“The pandemic caught all of us by surprise, and regardless of the conditions, I would want to think the justice institutions have tried,” she said, adding that she has met the top management of police and the courts and “agreed on a holistic approach” of administering justice in the usual times, including through, among others, weeding out low priority cases such was breaking curfew time, and creation of lean mobile courts which will be allowed inside prisons to for bail hearings or plea bargain in the bid to decongest prisons.

In his last televised address on Covid-19 on June 1, President Museveni said he had consulted with both the Attorney General, Mr William Byaruhanga, and Justice Abodo about releasing more than 4,000 people in prison in relation to violating the measures put in place.

The DPP, however, clarified that: “What the President said on has been misconstrued as if the President gave a directive all people arrested should be released; that is not how it works.
All their files have to be re-reviewed and each case file processed with its merits.”

“It is true justice should be quick, reasonable, proportional, but we must also balance public health because this crisis got everyone of us by surprise,” she added.

“All the low priority cases will be processed fast while those deemed as strong cases such as domestic violence, printing fake stickers or assaulting security personnel will have to be processed.”

According to the DPP’s office, statistics from the 49 prisons around the country show that 1,1833 cases files are petty offences and are being fast-tracked, and about 1,500 inmates have expressed interest in plea bargain—all relating to Covid-19.

But as the country expects justice for Covid-19 cases to be administered fast, the DPP’s office is already overwhelmed.

There is a thin workforce of 334 prosecutors, against an approved structure of 833, covering 150 districts.

The police spokesperson, Mr Fred Enanga, during the several briefings of security agencies on the lockdown has admitted that police have recorded a number of cases of rights violations against its officers, although it remains unclear how many officers are being prosecuted.

However, with thousands of people unable to find legal representation during quick trial processes, Justice Centres, the unit of the justice law and order sector established to provide free legal services is confronting this crisis.

Ms Goreth Ayebare, the in-charge of Justice Centre’s Mengo branch, told Daily Monitor that the overcrowding crisis in prisons needs urgent intervention.

“The most common cases there are either breaking curfew or domestic violence. But many of these have served sometime, others are on remand, and others have their cases yet to be heard,” Ms Ayebare said.

Adverse effects
“We faced a crisis when we set out; some people who were arrested in the beginning pleaded guilty immediately thinking they would be given light sentences but they were given six months which is the maximum penalty and then when we came in and started representing some, they were given light sentences of two three months or released on basis of time served on remand; that alone is a big contradiction.”

Ms Ayebare said the enforcement of the lockdown measures has had adverse effects on individuals and families.

“There are tales of men in prison who were arrested as they went to check on their expectant wives in health centres; mothers who were arrested as they went back home to their children; juveniles in adult prisons; terminally ill patients; and other cases relatives are not sure about whereabouts of their loved ones who were arrested,” she said.

“Then some were arrested inhumanely, they were beaten and injured; many are traumatised, and that is a scar they will carry for their lifetime.”

Last month, this incident was thrust in the spotlight after police officers were pictured cruelly rounding up mothers and their children in Lira District, which captured public imagination and sparked outrage around the country.

The DPP said she directed that the files of the women to be dropped.

Both Ms Ayebare and Justice Abodo, however, said to avoid congestion in prisons, police should exercise discretion and release minor offenders after a caution.

Upon release from Kitalya prison on Mityana road, inmates who are not picked by relatives have to find own means to their respective destinations because prison authorities are working with meagre resources, which Justice Centres said needs to be addressed.

“We have people calling us now and then telling us they have never seen their relatives since they were released,” Mr Joash Tamale, the Justice Centres’ legal associate at Mengo.

“If they did not reach their destinations in days and later weeks it raises fears that they died or were arrested again.”

Daily Monitor travelled to Kitalya for two days and found former inmates walking to several destinations upon their release.

Some were going as far as Masaka and Mukono districts while the lucky ones hoped to be offered lifts by well-wishers.

The Justice Centres national coordinator, Mr Aaron Besigye, said while the argument of balancing public health in the interest of the larger public and enforcing regulation is plausible, government ought to have done better.

“First, it was necessary that legal services were essential from day one. There are some rights that are non-derogable such as a right to a fair hearing,” Mr Besigye noted.

Mr Besigye added that rights go hand in hand with regulations and in enforcing the measures, if common sense had been applied, the prison system would not be clogged.

In a recently published paper on the legal implication of the lockdown, Makerere University law don, Dr Kabumba Busingye argued: “The current measures instituted thus far by government have been more rational and effective than that of many other states around the world, notwithstanding the fact they are of doubtful legality, if subjected to the strict test under Article 43 (2) of the Constitution.”

With the Coronavirus cases rising and government torn between keeping the measures in place or lifting them, the country is yet to see the worst, while those already affected have to learn to cope.

Besides the shootings and security personnel cruelly beating up people, thousands of people rounded up, especially during night operations have been detained at Kitalya prison for men and Kigo prison for the women.

Congestion in prisons has been a key concern in the fight against the spread of Covid-19. FILE PHOTO

People who have been to the Kitalya prison say its congested and a stark contrast of the social distancing measures in the presidential directives.