US sanctions prisons boss Byabashaija over torture

Commissioner General of Prisons, Johnson Byabashaija

What you need to know:

The US says since 2005 when Byabashaija was appointed as prisons boss, members of the Uganda Prisons Service have engaged in torture and other serious human rights abuse against prisoners held within UPS facilities. 

The United States Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Uganda’s Commissioner General of Prisons, Johnson Byabashaija over allegations of torture in the country’s correctional facilities. 

In a December 8 statement, the US says since 2005 when Byabashaija was appointed as prisons boss, members of the Uganda Prisons Service have engaged in torture and other serious human rights abuse against prisoners held within UPS facilities. 


“Prisoners have reported being tortured and beaten by Uganda Prisons Service staff and by fellow prisoners at the direction of UPS staff. Members of vulnerable groups, including government critics and members of Uganda’s LGBTQI+ community, have been beaten and held without access to legal counsel; for example, in a 2020 case, the UPS denied a group of LGBTQI+ persons access to their lawyers and members of the group reportedly endured physical abuse, including a forced anal examination and scalding,” the Friday evening statement reads in part.

Byabashaija is being designated for being a foreign person who is or has been a leader or official of an entity, including any government entity, that has engaged in, or whose members have engaged in, serious human rights abuse relating to the leader’s or official’s tenure pursuant to E.O. 13818.
Byabashaija was sanctioned alongside 19 other people for their connection to human rights abuse in nine countries. 
Two more people were sanctioned under the Department of State’s counterterrorism authority. 

“Furthermore, the Department of State likewise designated individuals in Russia, Indonesia, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for visa restrictions pursuant to Section 7031(c) of the Annual Appropriations Act. These actions are taken in concert with measures imposed by partners in the United Kingdom and Canada, which have similarly utilized economic measures to deter human rights abuse globally. We stand with our partners in upholding international ideals,” the statement adds.

The development comes days after the Department of State announced a visa restriction policy on Ugandans, particularly government officials who are believed to be behind the human rights violations and repression of marginalised groups in the country.

According to the December 4, 2023 press statement issued by the US Secretary of State, Mr Anthony Blinken, the sanctions is an expansion of the 2021 similar restrictions targeting those undermining the democratic process in Uganda.

Mr Blinken implored the Ugandan government to improve its record and hold accountable those responsible for flawed electoral processes, violence, and intimidation.
Among others, Mr Blinken revealed that environmental activists, human rights defenders, journalists, LGBTQI+ persons, and civil society organizers have continued to enjoy a shrinking democratic arena under the threats and repressions by some Ugandan officials.
The immediate family members of persons affected by the travel restrictions may also be subject to these visa exclusions, according to the US press statement.

“The United States stands by the Ugandan people and remains committed to working together to advance democracy, human rights, public health, and mutual prosperity.  I once again strongly encourage the Government of Uganda to make concerted efforts to uphold democracy and to respect and protect human rights so that we may sustain the decades-long partnership between our countries that has benefited Americans and Ugandans alike,” Mr Blinken emphasised.

This is not the first time for the US to issue travel bans or announce sanctions against a targeted group of Ugandan officials over undermining democratic processes in the country.
Months after the 2021 general election, without naming the said officials, the US issued similar travel bans on those who were said to be behind the gross human atrocities committed during the election periods.

Implications of sanctions 

As a result of today’s actions, all property and interests in property of the designated persons described above that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons are blocked and must be reported to OFAC. In addition, any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, individually or in the aggregate, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked. Unless authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC, or exempt, OFAC’s regulations generally prohibit all transactions by U.S. persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of designated or otherwise blocked persons. 

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In addition, financial institutions and other persons that engage in certain transactions or activities with the sanctioned entities and individuals may expose themselves to sanctions or be subject to an enforcement action. The prohibitions include the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any designated person, or the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person. 

The power and integrity of OFAC sanctions derive not only from OFAC’s ability to designate and add persons to the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List, but also from its willingness to remove persons from the SDN List consistent with the law. The ultimate goal of sanctions is not to punish, but to bring about a positive change in behavior. 

"For example, the Department of the Treasury notes recent attempts by the Uganda Prisons Service to implement human rights-related measures, but these measures fall short. Should Byabashaija implement effective measures to eliminate torture and impunity, increase independent human rights monitoring, ban forced anal examinations and other forms of abuse used to target LGBTQI+ persons and others, ensure protections for vulnerable persons and groups, and improve overall prison conditions, the Department of the Treasury will consider those to be changes of behavior that would potentially result in his removal from the SDN List," the statement adds.