US imposes visa restrictions on Ugandan officials

Saturday April 17 2021
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A soldier beats a boda boda rider during the November 2020 protests . PHOTO/FILE

By Julius Barigaba

In yet another cooling of relations between Kampala and its Western allies, the United States has announced visa restrictions on Ugandan officials who are believed to have undermined the democratic process in the country, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday.

“Today I am announcing visa restrictions on those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda, including during the country’s January 14 general elections and the campaign period that preceded it,” Mr Blinken said, in a press statement issued by the State Department on Friday.

The statement said the Uganda government actions represented a continuing downward trajectory for the country’s democracy and respect for human rights as recognised and protected by Uganda’s constitution.

“Opposition candidates were routinely harassed, arrested, and held illegally without charge. Ugandan security forces were responsible for the deaths and injuries of dozens of innocent bystanders and opposition supporters, as well as violence against journalists that occurred before, during, and after the elections,” the statement adds.

At least 54 people were shot dead by security forces during protests that erupted in Kampala and other major towns when leading opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine was arrested on November 18, 2020.

The statement does not name the officials targeted for travel bans, but a series of letters from the US Congress and the Department of State during both the Trump and Biden Administrations has named nearly a dozen senior military and police officers among those likely to be sanctioned over violent abuse of citizens’ human rights.

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“The way it works is that the names are not released but people on the list would not be given visas if they applied to travel to the United States,” an official familiar with the process told The EastAfrican.

“It isn’t as strong as the Magnitsky but it is certainly a serious matter.”

Mr Blinken’s travel ban is the latest in a series of restrictions that the US government has imposed on high profile Ugandan security officers, government officials, and their family members. Other Western allies and donors, particularly the European Union, have mooted similar moves in recent months, signalling deteriorating relations.

Top of the list is former Inspector General of Police Gen Kale Kayihura who, along with members of his immediate family, was sanctioned in 2019 under the Global Magnitsky Act for “serious human rights abuses and corruption” – smuggling illicit goods, including drugs, gold and wildlife out of Uganda – committed by the Flying Squad Unit when he was in command of Uganda Police Force from 2005 to 2018.

The US Treasury Department on September 13, 2019, said, “all property and interests in property of Kayihura, and of any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by him alone or with other designated persons, that are in the United States or in the possession or control of US persons, are blocked.”

In February, the EU Parliament passed a resolution calling for sanctions against individuals responsible for human rights violations in Uganda to be adopted under the new European Union’s own Magnitsky Act.

The resolution, the core of which was based on human rights violations that took place in the run-up to the January 14 general elections, was endorsed by 632 votes, with 15 against and 48 abstentions.

The EU, however, is yet to go through with the announcement of sanctions against Kampala.

Uganda’s State Minister for International Affairs Henry Okello Oryem said he had not seen the latest US Department of State statement imposing visa restrictions on Ugandan officials, but described it as unfortunate.

“They are taking decisions based on lack of knowledge of what happened on the ground. Our response is, there was no deliberate intention or plan to undermine democracy. What happened is that police officers made mistakes, but we couldn’t act on them because we didn’t have capacity to get a full report of what happened,” he said.

In the run-up to the January 14 presidential elections, in which incumbent President Yoweri Museveni was declared winner with 58 percent of the vote, against 35 percent from his closest challenger Bobi Wine, security forces were accused of partisanship.

Bobi Wine rejected the result as rigged, petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the election but later withdrew his case citing lack of impartiality among the judges, including Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny Dollo.

Many of more than a thousand opposition supporters who were arrested and abducted during the campaigns and after the elections are still held in ungazetted detention centres, with Internal Affairs Minister Gen Jeje Odongo confessing before parliament on April 15 that his ministry could not account for the missing persons.

Western governments and donors led by the US, United Kingdom, the European Union and Canada, continuously issued statements cautioning the Ugandan authorities against violating the rights of its citizens, notably supporters of opposition candidates and political parties.

Mr Blinken notes that civil society organisations and activists working to support electoral institutions and transparent election processes “have been targeted with harassment, intimidation, arrest, deportation, and spurious legal charges and denial of bank account access.”

Minister Oryem said the ban was the work of lobbyists working against the government of Uganda and would not deter the regime.

“We will not lose sleep, be shaken or demoralised [by the visa ban],” he said. “We are determined in our mission to deliver on the mandate the people of Uganda gave us in the January elections.”

The US gives Uganda about a $1 billion every year, mostly to fund health programmes. The two countries have also enjoyed close military ties with the Pentagon providing materiel and training to the Ugandan army, which in turn deploys troops to peacekeeping missions, including in Somalia, supported by the United States.

The ban is likely to affect military officers destined for training in the United States and other officials travelling for official and personal reasons. A full and formal response was expected from Ugandan authorities.

The US has demanded that the government of Uganda significantly improves its record and holds accountable those responsible for flawed election conduct, violence, and intimidation, further warning that the Biden Administration will continue to evaluate additional actions against individuals complicit in undermining democracy and human rights in Uganda, as well as their immediate family members.

“The United States also emphasises that we strongly support the Ugandan people, and we remain committed to working together to advance democracy and mutual prosperity for both our countries,” the statement concludes.

The US gives Uganda about a billion dollars every year, mostly to fund health programmes. The two countries have also enjoyed close military ties with the Pentagon providing materiel and training to the Ugandan army, which in turn deploys troops to peacekeeping missions, including in Somalia, supported by the United States.

The ban is likely to affect military officers destined for training in the United States and other officials travelling for official and personal reasons. A full and formal response was expected from Ugandan authorities.

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