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America calls out Uganda for graft, rights’ violations

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Police block a National Unity Platform party procession in Mukono Town recently. The US report accuses government of curtailing activities of the Opposition. Photo | Michael Kakumirizi

The United States government has once again cast the spotlight on the government’s human rights record, accusing Kampala of failure to arrest and prosecute its officials who are accused of involvement in rights violations.

“The government did not take credible steps to identify and punish officials who may have committed human rights abuses,” the 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Uganda, reads in part.

The report has, as expected, elicited a sharp response from Kampala, with Henry Oryem Okello, the junior Foreign Affairs minister, saying the US government’s record on human rights does not give it the moral authority to criticise others.

“Every country has its human rights issues. America totally rejects anything on human rights about them. America threatened to sanction the prosecutor and his staff when the International Criminal Court sought to investigate the killing of civilians in Afghanistan. The same happened when inmates in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were killed, but when it comes to human rights in Africa they want to come in with the biggest drums you can hear,” minister Oryem said.

The minister, nevertheless, hastened to defend the government against accusations that it was not doing enough to punish rights abusers.

“People have been taken to court and others before the General Court Martial. Soldiers have been asked to take responsibility for human rights abuses and for killing civilians. Those who use weapons given to them by the army to kill civilians are punished by ultimately being executed from within the very place where they killed individuals. That is always done in the open. Why then would anyone suggest that those involved in rights violations go unpunished?” the minister asked.

Mr Oryem also accused the US government of practicing double standards, saying it has always been at the forefront of condemning the government where killers have been subjected to killings.

“When we decided that those who kill civilians should be executed if found guilty, the same people were telling us that they should not be executed,” Mr Oryem said.

Other accusations

The accusation that the Uganda government lets rights abusers off the hook is one of a raft of others, including: torture, forced disappearance of political opponents, and arbitrary arrest of government critics.

The report recently published by the Department of State also illuminates interference with other freedoms, including media freedom, freedom to criticise the government, and its actions and officials, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association.

However, Mr Oryem insists that curtailing the activities of political parties and actors is not an official policy of the government.

“There is no policy of the government of Uganda that the Opposition should be taken head on and restricted from their responsibility,” he said.

The report called out the government for failure to combat corruption. Whereas the law provides for criminal penalties for corruption, the Ugandan government, the report notes, has failed to “implement the law effectively”.

“Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, especially through inflation of public procurement costs, bribery, kickbacks, and diversion of public resources to private use, while many corruption cases remained pending for years,” the report says in part. It also pointed out that the government had latched onto several provisions with the law to not only shield itself from public criticism but also curtail the activities of the political Opposition.

“The government restricted citizens’ ability to criticise its actions and officials or to discuss some matters of public interest. The law made it illegal to ‘write, send, or share any information through a computer, which is likely to ridicule, degrade, or demean another person, group of persons, a tribe, an ethnicity, a religion or gender.’ Authorities used this law to intimidate internet users from criticising government policies,” the report states.

Arbitrary arrests, killings

The report accuses the government and security operatives of involvement in several violations, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture of people who government has identified as either dissident or accused of involvement in criminal activity.

“There were several reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, including extrajudicial killings, during the year (2023),” the report reads.

Mr Oryem, however, blamed some of the crimes listed in the report on individual officers within the security agencies.

“There will always be one or two cases of human rights abuse. That applies to all countries, including the United States. These abuses are by individuals in security or other positions of responsibility, who take the law into their own hands due to either their character, human nature or lack of training,” he said.

The report listed Coster Muhongya, a 70-year-old supporter of the National Unity Platform (NUP) in Kasese District, who was arrested by plain-clothed security personnel and died at the Special Investigations Division in Kireka.

The police and military officials, the report notes, detained numerous Opposition politicians and activists on politically-motivated grounds.

NUP lawmakers, Muhammad Ssegirinya and Allan Ssewanyana, who are still battling murder and terrorism charges; Anthony Agaba, who was arrested for posting a video mocking Speaker of Parliament Anita Among; and 30 supporters who are battling charges of illegal possession of firearms and treachery in the General Court Martial are listed as some of the politically motivated arrests.

Disappearances, torture

The report also fingered Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) -- renamed Defense Intelligence and Security (DIS) -- and the Special Forces Command (SFC) and police for detaining many people, mostly supporters of the political Opposition at “unidentified locations without charge” and in some cases holding them incommunicado.

“Human rights lawyers reported police and military detention facilities sometimes denied political detainees access to and communication with their attorneys,” the report says.

The matter of missing NUP supporters has been a major talking point since the 2021 elections and has been the subject of an unresolved standoff between it and the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC). Quoting the international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International and other local human rights activists, the report claimed that security forces had engaged in torture and other acts of cruelty.

Minister Oryem insists that it is not the official policy of the government to subject any person to torture and other forms of inhuman treatment.

“Torture is not institutional. There is no agenda or programme in any institution of government to deliberately advocate human rights abuse or to allow for people who have been arrested to be tortured. It is condemned, and punished,” he said.

Judicial interference

The Uganda government, the report says, does not always respect judicial independence and impartiality, adding that the government often interfered with judicial rulings. On many occasions, the documents says, “security agencies defied court orders to release detainees or arraign persons they detained without charge”, adding that security operatives had in some instances intimidated judicial officers into denying bail to political detainees.

However, Ereemye Jumire James Mawanda, the Judiciary spokesperson, downplayed the alleged lack of independence.

“The Judiciary is and shall continue to perform her mandate independently. While we have seen some interference, the Chief Justice has come out clearly to condemn these interferences and he has affirmed that the Judiciary will continue to relate positively with the other arms and ensure justice for all without interference,” Mr Ereemye said.

The report further notes that suspects are arrested without warrants and in most cases held longer than the mandatory 48 hours, with some being held for periods ranging from 10 days to a month.

Quoting Lawyers without Borders, a not-for-profit corporation whose mission is to advance global rule of law, the document points to high rates of abuse of the right to bail and police bond due to lack of awareness of the right and inability to afford legal fees.

“The law provided detainees the right to legal representation and access to a lawyer, but authorities did not always respect this right,” the report says.

Mr Ereemye, however, blamed the State’s failure to provide legal services to those who cannot afford them on lack of funds and reluctance of lawyers to work on the cheap or both.

“This is due to the absence of a clear legal aid scheme and lack of funding. The Judiciary receives inadequate funding from the State, but the State brief scheme is available to some of these cases. The problem is that advocates don’t want to work for the low pay available under the scheme,” Mr Ereemye said.

He, however, hastened to add that a State-funded legal aid scheme is being developed. Once approved by Parliament, the scheme will be able to address some of those challenges, he said.