Rise in torture cases puts security’s human rights image in question

Tuesday June 30 2020

One of the suspects, who was allegedly tortured at Nalufenya Police Station in 2017. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa

On May 4 at about 8am, a group of security operatives raided the home of Mr Simon Peter Odongo, an Internal Security Operative, in Kirinya, Bweyogerere, Wakiso District.

Capt Robert Kandole’s affidavit states that Mr Odongo was detained for unlawful possession of a pistol with rounds of ammunition and a UPDF camouflage uniform.

While some sources claim Mr Odongo was accused of concocting evidence to frame senior security and army personnel, others claim his arrest was prompted by institutional cloak-and-dagger methods.

Ms Annet Kiiza, Mr Odongo’s wife, in her affidavit revealed that the arresting officers included Chief of Militancy Intelligence (CMI) soldiers, the officer- in charge of Kirinya Police Station, only know as Tabu, accompanied by a police officer who introduced himself as Benon Ayebare from Kireka Special Investigations Unit.

“He (Tabu) is the one who led the team to different rooms in the house while I was being forced by the soldier who shot my husband to clean the blood quickly. During the arrest, one of the arresting officers shot my husband in the leg with a pistol after he had been subdued in the corridor to the bedroom, and was seriously injured in the leg causing profuse bleeding,” Ms Kiiza stated.

A search without a warrant was conducted by the agents during which the suspect’s property, including two laptops, one drone, one GPS, six mobile phones, Shs4m and several other personal documents were taken.


Ms Caroline Odongo Turyatemba, Mr Odongo’s sister, claims that an hour after leaving hospital, an anonymous caller ‘informed me that my brother had moved away from the hospital.’

“I was eventually allowed to talk to him at Makindye Military Police Barracks on May 15 in the afternoon for a short time. He could not walk. He was being supported by a soldier to walk and also sit down. His leg left was seriously wounded with a gaping hole where he was shot during the arrest,” Ms Turyatemba says.

Mr Odongo told his sister that he could not hear well and his eye sight was failing.

His lawyer, Mr James Byamukama, said doctors recommended surgery to remove bullet fragments but this has not been done due to the victim’s unstable medical condition.

“He was tortured by CMI by being forcefully catheterised (inserting objects in his manhood) for no reason on medical grounds. He is now passing blood-stained urine. He has asthma, hypertension, diabetes, difficulty in breathing complicated by cardiovascular disease and bullet wounds,” Mr Byamukama said.

“He suffers from metabolic syndrome with suicidal opinion, loss of vision, loss of hearing, he is suicidal and has psychosomatic stress disorder,” he added.

In his affidavit, Capt Kandole says that while working on a tip-off, Odongo was in possession of firearms.
“He was arrested with two others Lance Corporal James Hamad and Private Valentine Akoko Oluge. That he was produced before the Unit Disciplinary Committee of CMI and charged with the offences of unlawful possession of firearms, unlawful possession of uniforms and unlawful possession of ammunition without a valid firearms certificate,” Capt Kandole states.

On Friday, High Court Assistant Registrar Alex Mushabe Karocho delivered a ruling on behalf of Judge Michael Elubu in regard to an application for the unconditional release of Mr Odongo.

The ruling compels those holding him to produce the suspect before a competent court within 48 hours and in the event he is not produced, court issues an unconditional order for his release.

Shortly after the ruling, Mr Odongo’s father, Mr Richard Odongo, a retired senior superintendent of police told Daily Monitor: “Worst of all, he has been denied medical attention, we don’t know why. When I inquired why he was not getting treatment, they said there was no medicine in any country. The military have the best medical treatment but my son is not getting that treatment, we are the ones forced to buy medicine to take to Bombo. Isn’t that torture?”
He is baffled why his son is being severely punished.

“For 52 days in custody, he has not been had proper medical attention , access to his lawyer. What is this crime he committed?” Even those who commit murder access medical and legal representation,” the retired officer says.

Mr Odongo’s case is emblematic of the proliferation of torture, which has scarred the conscience of the nation.
Torture has been the tool of choice to subjugate a meek civilian population by post-independence regimes, and to punish adversaries who do not abide by the unwritten credo.
“If you look at the preamble of the Constitution, we are looking at the history we went through. People were tortured, people disappeared without a trace, people were burnt and maimed for life during Amin’s time, so when we came to make the Constitution, we put that the right from freedom of torture is not derogable in any circumstances,” Former Chief Justice Bart Katureebe said during NTV’s talk show, On the Spot last week.

Mr Nicholas Opiyo, the executive director of Chapter Four, a human rights organisation, says Mr Odongo’s case shows how ‘the biggest undoing is unfairness towards people working in the security sector.

“If we don’t highlight this, we will have a breaking point at some point and refuse to obey orders. I have people who sit in my office that we rescued from unfair detention from the General Court Martial. A young boy had vowed to go and shoot people for being treated unfairly. So what deeply concerns me is torture of people working in security sector,” Mr Opiyo, who is investigating the case, said.

“The General Court Martial has been far from being a court. Many soldiers and intelligence officers are suffering in the hands of internal disciplinary proceedings, and have been subjected to torture and many of them can’t speak,” he adds.

The High Court has ordered that Mr Odongo is paid Shs250 million as general and exemplary damages for the torture he has been subjected to.

With the state grappling to clear a Shs6 trillion debt with victims of torture, Odongo’s bill will further constrain the resource envelope.

On Friday, Uganda marked the UN day in support of torture victims. In his message, the UN Secretary General, Mr Antonio Gutteres said:“Torturers must never be allowed to get away with their crimes, and systems that enable torture should be dismantled or transformed.”

But there is little faith to believe that these words will find a ground well enough to sprout into decisions towards stamping out torture.

Uganda has ratified a number of international instruments against torture and passed a number of legislations against the vice, including the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act. On the contrary, cases of torture have increased.
Speaking to NTV, former Chief Justice Katureebe said individual culpability should be enforced.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, a rise in torture cases has been registered largely in poor communities targeting women and children.

Security personnel have also used the cover of enforcing the lockdown and curfew rules to mete out torture against civilians.

Ms Ritah Nankya, who was operating a bar on the outskirts of Bombo Town, was raided by army officers in the night while she was asleep.

Bar owner attacked
“I had closed my door, it was March 31 at 10pm, some security men knocked on my door. They said if we do not open the door, they would kick it. I said since I am alone, let me open. They first hit me with a whip in the head, I turned my back ... nobody came to my rescue,” Ms Ritah Nankya says.
“I cried and pleaded for forgiveness, I felt I could not cry anymore. I became paralysed until I passed out. When they saw lots of blood, one said ‘let us stop and go’. When I tried to stand up, I had open wounds on my feet and my knee was split,” she adds.

Ms Nankya had to rely on her ailing mother to nurse her, and did not receive any financial support.
“They looted the alcohol I had in my bar, and knocked down my bar. It is African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims that helped treat me,” she says.

Although a few of her physical scars are beginning to heal, it is the psychological scars which will remain visible for a long time. Today, Ms Nankya has no source of income, and those who tortured her are yet to be prosecuted.

While appearing before the House Committee on Human Rights in September last year, families of those missing gave a harrowing account of their relatives who are being detained in safe houses.

Whereas safe houses are places used secretly by undercover agents, in Uganda, they represent steel-gated dungeons where hundreds are trapped and subjected to torture.

Forms of torture include kandoya (tying hands and feet behind the victim), “Liverpool” water torture (forcing the victim to lie face up, mouth open, under a flowing water tap), severe and repeated beatings with metal or wooden poles, cables, hammers and sticks and electrocution.

However, police spokesperson Fred Enanga says security agencies have put in place measures to stamp out torture.
“The leadership of the joint security agencies has strongly come out to fight torture within the security agencies.

It is not common now that you can find those very disturbing images of people who are wounded during the course of arrest, illegal or excessive detention. There are a lot of initiatives that came and have helped us in addressing acts of torture within security agencies,” Mr Enanga said last week.
He said police have established four disciplinary courts aimed at getting rid of “bad apples within the force.”
However, Mr Enanga argues that human rights bodies often cherry-pick torture incidents of security personnel and often ignore those in communities.

“There is a lot of human rights abuses within the community [such as] attacks, cases of strangulation. What surprises them is human rights activities do not go to the communities,” he says.

Detention centres on the spot
Since 2001, quasi-military agencies such as Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce, Operation Wembley and its successor, Violent Crime Crack Unit, —have defied laws regulating arrest and detention with no consequences.

For a long spell, Nalufenya prison in Jinja District became the symbol of torture. In April 2018, the Inspector General of Police, Mr Martins Okoth Ochola, ordered the closure of the prison. But Mr Nicholas Opiyo, a lawyer, argues that closing the facility was not enough.

“When Nalufenya was closed and people jubilated, I warned and said the problem was not the building of Nalufenya, the problem is in checking the powers and the use of that power by those who occupy those offices.”

He says the police force is ripe for reform, so are intelligence agencies that have no powers of arrest and investigation. “Reform in the sense that we must make the police force a pro-people force, make it transparent and accountable to the people. I think the time for a civilian oversight body of the police force is now,” Mr Opiyo says.

With the spike in insecurity and violent crimes, security agencies often arrest scores in an attempt to nip crime in the bud. However, human rights and civil liberties exponents argue that there is no justification to enforce torture as its a non-derogable right that cannot be suspended even in a state of emergency.