‘I saw inmates tortured to death’

Lukwago narrates that they would be made to squat and a warder walks on their shoulders.

What you need to know:

According to the latest report by the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the police are lead violators of human rights. They are followed by the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces and the Uganda Prisons Service in third place. A man released from prison last month reveals to Ivan Okuda chilling stories of torture, some causing undeclared death of inmates.

He gnashes and winces, struggling to move one step at a time. Harrowing pain has been part of his life for almost a decade now. At the moment, he is nearly resigned to his fate.

Yahaya Lukwago’s fate script was written in 2000 when he was arrested by police in Mbale District, charged with aggravated robbery and convicted a few years later. He says though that he was wrongly charged as his only crime was – as special hire driver - driving two clients, who were on police wanted hit list, to a hotel in Mbale. The two clients later escaped and he was arrested.

The owner of that hotel, whom he identifies as Madina Nagudi, and Karim Isiko, a client too, were arrested, convicted by Mbale High Court in 2003 and sentenced to death with him but were later set free on appeal. Along the way, his insistence on his innocence and why the other two were set free remains fodder for debate.

That, however, is not the issue. Following the famous (Susan Kigula and 417 others) case ruling, since his death sentence had not been executed, Nakawa High Court judge, Faith Mwondha mitigated his sentence to 24 months.

A release form MLE: 501/2013 bearing a conviction date February 11, 2013, seen by this newspaper confirms he was released on June 22, 2014.

That freedom nonetheless comes with a heavy emotional burden of a man who claims he was tortured for years in jail and witnessed fellow inmates meet their death at the hands of prison warders. “The families of those inmates to this day do not know that their sons were killed and buried in prison,” he says.

While at Upper Prison in Luzira, “It was a Wednesday, February 18, 2006 when seven of us were tortured. We protested the poor quality food we were being fed on. The posho was sour and some inmates suffered from diarrhoea and others appendicitis. That was our crime.” For this, he claims, they were blacklisted as notorious and charges of fighting and locking out other inmates ‘concocted’.

“John Tusiime, one of the inmates, was beaten and his legs broken. When we leaked information to human rights groups, they were told Tusiime attempted to jump out but I saw him being clobbered until his legs were broken,” Lukwago reminisces sorrowfully.

On June 16, 2006, he was transferred from Luzira upper prison to Kirinya Prison in Jinja together with Tusiime who was on death row having been convicted for murder.

“The Court of Appeal was meant to sit in 2007 and hear our appeal but we were told one judge was sick and we missed that session until May 29, 2008 when it sat and released the other two, leaving me alone,” he says.
It is at this point that his can of worms was opened.

45 days in ‘hell’
In 2009, inmates at the condemn section went on strike. “The prison warders never want to be challenged on anything even if it affects your life. One of us reported one of the wardens to their bosses for being a drunkard and requested for another warden. That annoyed the officer in charge of our ward who ordered his officers to beat us for 45 days,” he recollects, taking a deep sigh and struggling to recompose himself.

He adds: “For the first two weeks (of the 45 days) we were denied food and only fed on hot water and tiny pieces of posho with dishes of sandy bean soup.” The arrangement, as per the OC’s orders, was to have the more than 45 inmates beaten four times a day.

“We were beaten at 6am, 7am, 11am and 4pm with batons, kicked and punched all over the body, my legs are now paralysed and so is the left side of the body,” he says, struggling to show the scars.
The first death he witnessed
On August 7, 2009, an inmate only identified as Abdulkarim from Masaka met his death in the most horrendous of ways.

“I remember him very well. He had no teeth and he was convicted for murder by Masindi High court. He died right under my legs as he was being beaten,” he weepily narrates, adding, “he was beaten so hard that his legs and hands broke, he started vomiting blood and finally died as we all watched. We were later told he was buried within Kirinya Prison.” He was reportedly buried in a place only known as Gologosa in Kirinya prison jargon.

Jenga bridge torture tactic
During the 45 days, Lukwago reveals the use of a torture method called Jenga Bridge.

“We would put legs on the wall, hands down and another person puts their legs on your head, and that was in a chain format. Then one officer would kick one of us and the chain breaks and we all fall down, hitting our teeth and mouth on the concrete floor,” he narrated.

On other days, he adds: “We were made to squat and interlock our heads, then one of the wardens would walk on our shoulders.”

Another corpse
Around October 24, 2009, a group of inmates were transferred from Luzira Upper Prison to Kirinya Prison. Some of these were taken to his ward and Lukwago remembers Stephen Muhinda (robbery) and Felix Alolonga (from West Nile, murder).
“We peeped through a hole in the door and saw Alolonga being beaten from head to toe in the corridor, kicked and his long hair pulled as he bled and screamed for mercy, we watched him die and the officers carried his body away,” he mournfully reminisces.

Where he was buried remains a mystery to date but the rumour mill in the prisons circles had it that, “the prisons officials would connive with police to falsify reports of death saying the inmate died while fighting or trying to escape but the relatives were never informed”.

After the 45 days, the inmates, most of them serving sentences for capital offences, were rotated in different cells from A1, B2, B7, B11 to B6.

“We were separated into other groups. A cell that takes five people was allocated to about 12 inmates and some were never allowed to move out for up to 11 months. All we had were buckets (for nature’s call) and food would be passed under the door. When we became terminally ill, it is only then that they took us out for treatment,” the father of one recalls.

Before the situation got too dire to attract the permission to move out, Lukwago reveals that an inmate, only identified as Bwerere from Mbarara District, died. Lukwago became so ill that he was moved to Jinja Hospital for treatment.

“There was a lady called Nantale whom I approached and explained my predicament to, she was touched and worked out my transfer to Murchison Bay prison so I could get better treatment in Luzira,” he says. A medical form from the Prison health services dated February 12, 2010 indicates he was diagnosed with, “joint pain, oral sores, painful legs, chest pain, trauma to legs and chest, sick looking and wasted, post traumatic chest pain, oral thrush and arthritis”.

But beyond this, the tentacles of torture still stretched to this prison.

“An inmate called Peter Kato was on ARVs but the warders went ahead and tortured him for demanding better food, perhaps this accelerated his death,” he says, adding: “Other people died the same way like Pius Biryomunsi from Mbarara and a one Oryema from Gulu. For some of these, their relatives picked the bodies but they were not told the truth of the torture they went through.”

“Even at Maluku prison in Mbale where I served my last days in jail, I saw people being tortured but did not record any death. However, we would hear stories from those taken to Ngenge Prison in Kapchorwa District how some inmates died of torture in the prison farms and were buried there,” he says.

Today, Lukwago stares at a blank future, unsure where and how to start reconstructing his life.
His parents, he discovered died when he was in jail, his only uncle who tried to help him while in jail, Patrick Kiggundu, a onetime corporation secretary with the New Vision too died in an accident.

His son is now 17 years old and he is uncertain if his wife, who now has a one-year-old child, will return home.

What bothers him more is the fact that, “I cannot do much now, my hands, legs are paralysed, I have to sleep on one side of my body. I am a mechanic and driver. That is all I can do but with this paralysis, I am helpless.”

In all this mire of despair, however, he is determined to work tooth and nail to see to it that his tormentors are taught a thing or two about ethics and human rights.

Last week, Lukwago sued the Attorney General, Mr Peter Nyombi, Commissioner General of Prisons, Dr Johnson Byabashaija and Internal Affairs minister, Gen Aronda Nyakairima. Through his lawyer, Mr Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, the 42-year-old former inmate wants court to order for an inquest into the death of his once fellow inmates and the officers personally brought to book. He also filed an application for damages following severe, life shattering injuries allegedly inflicted on him while in prison.