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64-page Amnesty report pins UNLA on atrocities in fight against NRA

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Former president Milton Obote (right). PHOTO/ FILE

Thirty-nine years ago on Tuesday (June 11, 1985), the global human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, outed a 64-page report in which it detailed claims that the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) had committed serious atrocities against the civilian population in Luweero Triangle and other parts of the country in its war against the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels.

The report, the watchdog said, was the product of a compilation made over a four- and half-year period.

It detailed the harassment of supporters of the Opposition Democratic Party (DP), the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) and suspected sympathisers of the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A).

The report accused UNLA of illegally detaining civilians, some of whom appeared “unconnected with the armed opposition to President [Milton] Obote’s government”, in military garrisons where they would be subjected to torture.

“For the past four and half years, Amnesty International has been concerned about persistent reports of the widespread and systematic use of torture against detainees in Uganda. Those most at risk are civilians unlawfully imprisoned for political reasons in military barracks where the use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is routine,” the report read in part.

The report further said, “all but a few of those detained in military custody are tortured. Many torture victims have disappeared in custody and are feared dead”.

Whereas government had consistently denied reports of widespread torture, the report said a variety of sources, including torture victims who had been released, associates and members of families of such victims and former security operatives had been able to point the watchdog to places where the torture was being carried out.

Makindye Military Police Barracks, Lubiri and Kireka UNLA barracks were listed as some of the most notorious military installations where torture was being conducted.

The watchdog reported that it had commissioned two medical doctors, a surgeon and a forensic pathologist, who examined 16 people who were subjected to torture at different times between 1981 and 1985 who confirmed that 15 of them had been tortured.

“One of these did not bear physical scars consistent with her account of ill-treatment. The remaining 15 displayed physical signs and described symptoms consistent with their accounts of being tortured,” the report noted.

Unlawful detentions
The report also accused the UNLA and the National Security Agency (NASA) of holding political prisoners incommunicado in military barracks, intelligence headquarters or secret prisons run by NASA.

“It is reported that anyone detained unlawfully by the army or NASA is likely to be tortured. Many of those detained by the military are held in army barracks,” the report read in part.
The report pointed out that those held in military garrisons had been informed that they were anti-government guerrillas or had knowledge of the guerrillas.

The Nile Mansions Hotel, Park Hotel, Kamukuzi in Mbarara, Ihungu in Masindi, Mpoma Earth Satellite Station in Mukono and some NASA-run “safe houses” were listed as the other places where unlawful detentions were being carried out.

Camps in Luweero
“Amnesty International has received a number of reports that since the beginning of 1985, the army has set up detention camps within the ‘Luweero Triangle’ area of Buganda near Kampala to hold prisoners arrested elsewhere in the country, principally in Kampala and in Bunyoro where widespread arrests have been reported in recent months,” the report noted.
The camps had reportedly been set up in Katikamu, Bowa, Mityana, Bukomero and Kabunyata.

Torture methods
In Makindye Military Police Barracks, the report noted, cells were so highly congested that prisoners were forced to sleep in “squatting positions one behind the other”.

“In or outside the ‘quarter guard’ new prisoners are usually beaten with iron bars, cable, pieces of wood into which nails have been driven, rifle butts, and machetes or hammers. In some cases prisoners are alleged to have died as a result,” the report said.

Other forms of torture, including denying prisoners food and water, were reportedly conducted on prisoners in another cell known as the “go-down”.

“People often begged for your urine because they had gone so long without water,” a former detainee was quoted to have told Amnesty International.

Some other methods included routine beatings and burning which consisted of tying the victim down with a car tyre suspended over him or her and setting alight the tyre to allow for the molten rubber to drip on the victim’s limbs; or by having a red-hot cooking-stove coil placed against his face, neck, chest and thigh.

No toilet facilities
The report pointed out that most of the detention centres did not have toilet facilities, often being forced to make do with either empty oil drums or buckets located in the same rooms where the prisoners were being held.

The report noted that many prisoners had died in Makindye and Kireka.
“It is reported that many prisoners die in the ‘go-down’, either from starvation or as a result of their beatings. Their bodies may not be removed for up to two weeks,” the report further revealed. 

Mass graves
The report also claimed that there were mass graves that had been dug up near some unnamed military barracks. It claimed that some former detainees had informed the watchdog that they had on several occasions been taken out at night to load dead bodies onto lorries and Land Rover trucks. The bodies would then be buried in mass graves.

“In 1984, an Australian television crew filmed an open mass grave within a few hundred yards of an army barracks. Interviewed by the television reporter, a Ugandan government representative said he did not know who was responsible,” the report read in part.

The report did not name the said government official, but said there were other mass graves in Luweero and Namanve.

In other instances, the report said prisoners were descended upon with iron bars and gun butts, while others were killed by hitting their heads on walls.

The report also claimed that women, including pregnant ones, had been raped while in detention. Some had, as a result, miscarried.

The report also listed cases where children or members of families that were considered to be well off would be arrested and taken to those military detention facilities for purposes of extorting their families, who would be forced to pay some kind of ransom in order to obtain their release.

The report concluded by calling for an urgent investigation into allegations of torture in all the places that it had named. It also called on the government to state where the people who were alleged to have “disappeared were” and ensure confessions obtained through torture are never used in law. 

It also called for compensation of victims of torture and dependents of those who had “disappeared”.
“All acts of torture should be made punishable offences under the criminal law. Those responsible for torture should be brought to justice,” the report said.

However, on July 27, 1985, slightly more than a month after Amnesty International had issued the report, Generals Bazillio Olara Okello and Tito Okello Lutwa brought down the curtain on the Obote II regime. 

We will never know whether it would have acted on the recommendations of the report. 

Safe houses: 
The report pointed out that those being held in military garrisons had been informed that they were anti-government guerrillas or had knowledge of the guerrillas.

The Nile Mansions Hotel, Park Hotel, Kamukuzi in Mbarara, Ihungu in Masindi, Mpoma Earth Satellite Station in Mukono and some NASA-run “safe houses” were listed as the other places where unlawful detentions were being carried out.