Tales of torture and death in Uganda’s torture centres

The March 11 country human rights report released by the American government faults the Ugandan government in at least 18 areas of serious human rights abuse, which among others include arbitrary and politically motivated killings, abductions; electoral irregularities; official corruption; mob and ethnic violence and official impunity.

It highlights other “serious human rights problems” as vigilante killings; politically motivated abductions; torture and abuse of suspects and detainees and harsh prison conditions; arbitrary and politically motivated arrest and detention; the holding of suspects incommunicado and lengthy pretrial detention; restrictions on the right to a fair trial and on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and religion; restrictions on opposition parties.

Other problem areas are violence and discrimination against women and children, including female genital mutilation (FGM), sexual abuse of children, and the ritual killing of children; trafficking in persons; violence and discrimination against persons with disabilities and homosexuals; restrictions on labour rights; and forced labour, including child labour.

Government reaction?
So far, there is no significant official reaction to the report, as most of the government officials Sunday Monitor contacted said they had not seen the report posted on the US government’s official website and so needed time to carefully examine the report.

Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary, Amb. James Mugume, the Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Mr Medi Kaggwa and the Police Spokesperson, Ms Judith Nabakooba, all told this newspaper they needed to time to study the context in which the Americans wrote last year’s report before they can comment on it.

“But I think we’ve been working with all the stakeholders while addressing all these issues as they’ve been raised from time to time,” said Amb. Mugume. “Many reports keep coming, some of them not genuine, so we need time to study this one before addressing the new issues with various institutions.”
The American report opens with a description of Uganda as a country of 32 million people led by President Museveni of the dominant NRM party elected in the “2006 presidential and parliamentary elections [that] were marred by serious irregularities”.

Prominent feature
Featuring prominently in the report is the September 2009 violence in Kampala, where security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse demonstrators, which according to official statistics resulted in 27 deaths and numerous injuries. Other observers suggest the death toll from the September riots were as high as 50. The violence erupted following the travel restrictions the government imposed on the Kabaka (king) of Buganda Kingdom.

“More than 1,000 persons were detained, of whom more than 400 were in prison awaiting trial at year’s end. Following the riots the government closed and suspended the licenses of four radio stations, closed a radio talk show, and suspended or dismissed journalists to control coverage of the event,” reads the report in part.

“While civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces, elements of the security forces occasionally acted independently of government authority,” says the report, which concentrates on listing problems without giving specific recommendations as to what remedial action needs to be taken.

On the issue of arbitrary or unlawful deprivation of life, the report says the Ugandan government or its agents apparently committed politically motivated killings and were responsible for arbitrarily killing opposition members, detainees, demonstrators, and other citizens. Some deaths occurred as a result of torture, which though illegal under Uganda’s penal system, is said to be routinely used as an interrogation tool by the recognised and clandestine security organisations.

It mentions the January 17 incident in Bukedea District where, security agents reportedly tortured to death David Okwi, a member of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change party for allegedly possessing a gun.

The Uganda Police, the Prisons and the UPDF are also accused of using excessive force while dealing with civilians, which resulted into death and injuries.
“Police use of excessive force, including live ammunition, to disperse demonstrators, resulted in deaths and injuries. For example, on February 16, in Nakaseke District, SPC Paul Baita allegedly shot and killed William Byamugisha and Daniel Tumwine, students at Kaloke Christian High School, who were demonstrating against the quality of meals provided at the school. Four other students were injured and required medical treatment.”

The report also mentions a number of incidents in 2008, 2007, and 2006 where Ugandan security forces were involved in killings. Among the incidents highlighted is the 2006 random shooting at a crowd of opposition members in Mengo by Lt. Ramadhan Magara, killing two and injuring others. Magara has since been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 14 years in jail.

Defence and Army Spokesman, Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, said much as he had not read the report to comment on the specific issues it raises, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces had made serious strides towards observance and respect of human rights.

“We do exist as an institution because of the people and we do respect people’s rights. It is the reason we put in place a full directorate in charge of human rights and it is manned by senior lawyers who teach human rights to our soldiers – actually, human rights is taught at all levels of our training,” he said.
“Some of the individual incidents have been happening because we are not made out of angels. We are human beings. But we have zero tolerance to human rights abuse as an institution and we do not condone those acts.”

Other problem areas in the US report are the rampant ritual murders and mob violence cases. “Mob attacks against criminal suspects resulted in deaths. Witnesses rarely cooperated with police, making investigation of such incidents difficult,” it adds.

Abduction implications
On disappearances, the report implicates the government in politically motivated abductions, giving the example of two FDC members Ismail Wagaba and Robert Mugyenyi who were taken from their homes by suspected state agents in 2008 and 2006, respectively.

On torture cases, the American report says “there were credible reports that security forces tortured and beat suspects, some of whom died as a result”. Quoting the recent UHRC findings, the report says torture generally occurred in unregistered detention facilities and was intended to force confessions.

“There were numerous reports of torture and abuse in the unregistered detention facilities operated by the JATT and CMI. In its April 8 report, HRW noted that detainees held in JATT headquarters in Kololo and at CMI headquarters in Kitante described being “hit repeatedly with the butt of a gun, slapped in the head and ears, or beaten with fists, whips, canes, chairs, and shoes.”

“JATT and CMI personnel “put detainees into painful stress positions and forced red chili pepper into eyes, nose, and ears,” causing excruciating pain. Some detainees described being shocked with electricity, and many reported seeing detainees struggling to walk or having to be carried by fellow detainees to vehicles. One detainee lost his leg due to infection in a wound caused by a severe beating,” says the US report.

The UHRC, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), and other human rights organisations have previously reported incidents of torture by security forces, including caning, severe beating, stabbing, kicking, tying of limbs in contorted positions, forced marching, and rape.

“Torture victims included political activists and detainees,” says the US report, “For example, Francis Atugonza, the mayor of Hoima and the FDC’s trade and industry secretary, filed charges during the year against the CMI for alleged illegal detention and torture in a CMI “safe house” after he was arrested in April.”

“During the September 10-12 riots in Kampala, security forces beat suspects, including women, and went door to door in some neighborhoods, pulling residents out of their homes to be beaten and arrested, according to HRW.

Victims petitioned
“The UHRC received complaints from individuals who sustained injuries during the riots. For example, a petition filed by Ssemukala Ismail alleged that security force members shot him while he was closing his shop in Nateete, impairing his left arm.”

The Uganda police further features in the US report for its excessive use of force during arrests, evictions and land disputes resulted in injuries.
It also highlights the issue of an influx of arms in the country, fuelling violence in the Karamoja region, resulting in deaths and injuries.

It also condemns the continued holding onto children forcibly abducted from Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel force currently hiding in the DR Congo, “responsible for killing, raping, and kidnapping hundreds of persons in the DRC, CAR, and Sudan”.