November riots: Are killers above the law?

Tuesday May 18 2021
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Plain clothed security personnel patrol the streets of Kampala during the deadly November 18/19- 2020 riots. PHOTOS/STEPHEN OTAGE

By Elizabeth Kamurungi

Lawyers and rights activists yesterday demanded that the government urgently prosecutes killers of protestors of last November riots, following revelations that 42 were hit dead by “stray bullets”.

Ms Pheona Nabasa Wall, the president of Uganda Law Society, said legal grounds exist to bring suits against the government and individual security officers for the killings that happened exactly six months ago, today.

“We have been calling for investigations to get these individual prosecuted. There is something [that] we call negligence. There are many things we see here. We see someone saying it is a stray bullet, but how did it become a stray bullet. Is it palatable to go and quell riots when you have live bullets, is it the practice?” she said in an interview last evening.

ULS is the umbrella body for the legal fraternity in the country and its strategic goal is to provide “efficient legal service delivery to ensure access to justice and observance of the rule of law …”, according to information on its website.

Ms Wall said the commander(s) of the November operation should be named to answer for the civilian deaths because soldiers firing live ammunition on unarmed people amounts to “negligence” and it “means everyone killed, who was a civilian, has a right to get compensation”.

Speaking about the riots on December 19, 2020, President Museveni, who is the commander of the Armed Forces, blamed the mayhem on western-backed Opposition extremists whom he said schemed to cause widespread anarchy.
 Citing initial briefings to him, Gen Museveni said 32 of the fatalities comprised “rioters”. 

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In subsequent televised addresses, he branded them “terrorists” and elements of Special Forces who distinguished themselves fighting the al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels in the DR Congo, took them out of action. 

This was the first, and only time, that the Special Forces Command (SFC), commanded by First Son Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, were officially mentioned in relation to the operation.

However, Maj Dennis Omara, the SFC spokesperson, yesterday said none of the soldiers under the Command participated in the operation.

“Our SFC uniforms are distinct from the rest of the UPDF. In case they [SFC] are operating even in joint operations, you can easily say this is an SFC operative… and I do not see where operations are conducted in plain clothes. That is not how we work. As SFC, we did not even take part in this operation,” he said.

During the crack down, men in civilian attire, and brandishing AK-47 rifles, were among several security operatives who fanned onto the streets to suppress the civil disorder.

Police said the rioters damaged public and private property, blocked and lit bonfires on paved roads, stole from passers-by, attacked security forces and undressed supporters of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.

The violent demonstrations were triggered when security forces arrested then National Unity Platform (NUP) party presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, in the eastern Luuka District for allegedly flouting Covid-19 prevention rules.

In an interview last night, Dr Livingstone Ssewanyana, the executive director of Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), described the deaths of civilians from so-called “stray bullets were “plain extra-judicial killings”.

“As a primary duty, the government has a duty to prosecute the perpetrators of the extra-judicial killings. They have a duty to compensate families for loss of loved ones. They have a duty to investigate who killed, where, why, how and when and commit that there will be no repeat,” he said.

Dr Ssewanyana is a United Nations Independent Expert on promoting Democratic and Equitable International Order. 
He said last night that Uganda will be scrutinised by member states when it comes up for review at the United Nations Human Rights Council either this year or early next year.

“Acts of impunity must stop; they are not within the laws of Uganda and, as such, they render the state liable for its actions,” he added.

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Soldiers remove fire barricades from the road during the November 18/19 riots that erupted following the arrest of former NUP presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. PHOTO/MICHEAL KAKUMIRIZI

Human rights lawyer Eron Kiiza, shared a similar legal opinion that the November killings were outside the law.
“This is what they call extrajudicial killings. For those so-called rioters, if it is a punishment, it was excessive. It is illegal to kill rioters in Uganda, you can arrest them, detain them within the law but to kill them is arbitrary and an antithesis of the rule of law and human rights,” he said.

Earlier, ULS President Wall, while pursuing the line of command responsibility, asked the government to come clean on “who told them (soldiers) to set them (live bullets) off”.

“If it was accidental, who takes responsibility? When you are a soldier, you are trained to have a duty of care, and that requires you to take caution. If you do not, they have to investigate and find out to what extent you are responsible for what happened,” she said.

ULS, she said, had set up a team of 100 lawyers ready to offer pro bono legal services to families that lost loved ones should they choose to sue the government. 

In a highly-guarded December 5, 2020 report on investigations into November riots, which this newspaper has seen, Criminal Investigations Director Grace Akullo disclosed that only 11 of the 53 persons shot dead were “rioters”.

One victim, 57-year-old Kevina Nalwadda, was run over by a car whose driver, investigators reported, lost control when demonstrators hurled stones at him during the three-day chaos in Kampala and surrounding districts.

The government’s internal report, part of whose contents this newspaper exclusively published yesterday, indicated that 45 of the fatalities were men, six were women and three juveniles.

“54 persons died in 49 incidences of death by shooting … of the 54 deaths, 11 victims were rioters, 42 were hit by stray bullets while 1 was knocked by a motor vehicle reg. no. UAW 827N that lost control after the driver was stoned by rioters along Ben Kiwanuka street in Kampala District,” AIGP Akullo noted in the report addressed to the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen David Muhoozi.

The army, like it has done over the past half-a-year, yesterday declined to discuss the findings, refused to name the perpetrators and deflected our questions about accountability and justice for victims to police. 

AIGP Akullo’s report listed military police personnel, regular police and soldiers from UPDF’s 1st Division based in Kakiri, Wakiso District, as the ones who subdued the riots.

“We were under joint security operations. We can all not talk for single institutions. All civil operations were under the police and every information we collected, we shared with police. It is only police that can comment…we are not handling any issues as a single institution,” Lt Col Deo Akiiki, the deputy military spokesperson, said, before referring additional inquiries to police.

Mr Fred Enanga, the Police spokesperson, was unavailable yesterday.
However, the CID spokesman, Mr Charles Twine, told this newspaper in an interview on Sunday that “for the record, rioters are not supposed to be shot dead”.

“But there could be circumstance that during the engagement that somebody could be dead, including police officers,” he said, adding that they had opened files for each of the November 18-20, 2020 deaths and any unjustified killing would result in prosecution for murder or manslaughter.

Days after the operation, President Museveni in a terse radio message fired the then Deputy Inspector General of Police, Brig Sabiiti Muzeyi, and rebuked the law enforcement agency for sitting on the job.

“I congratulate the UPDF for defeating the insurrection that the traitors, with their foreign backers, attempted to stage a few weeks ago,” he noted.

Rights lawyer Kiiza doubted the objectivity of the findings, questioning how police could possibly be impartial to inquire into crimes whose commission included some of its personnel.

He said: “There should have been a timely, impartial investigation into all this because as time flows, evidence goes, people lose interest. That goes for justice, even if you get a court saying compensate them, the compensations delay and you still have to go and beg government to be compensated.”

A December 5, 2020 official report into the killings, names military police personnel, police and soldiers from UPDF’s 1st Division based in Kakiri as those who subdued the disturbances.

Report
In a highly-guarded December 5, 2020 report on investigations into November riots, which this newspaper has seen, Criminal Investigations Director Grace Akullo disclosed that only 11 of the 53 persons shot dead were “rioters”.

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