Fresh questions have emerged about the fate of some of the missing persons after the Special Forces Command (SFC) said it lacks a detention facility and is holding no suspect, contrary to President Museveni’s acknowledgement.
In a February 23-letter sent to this newspaper on March 7, President Museveni noted that by the time of his televised February 13 address about the security situation in the country and alleged disappearances of citizens, “SFC was still ‘holding’ 53 persons”.
“Since that time, two persons have been released, one had a problem of tuberculosis (TB). The other 51 have been with SFC, helping them to expose the whole criminal scheme of elements of the Opposition plus their local parasite and foreign backers,” Gen Museveni noted.
Whereas this acknowledgement in a way appeared to assuage national anxiety, it opened the State up for scrutiny on why the SFC – whose core job is to guard the President, the Vice President and critical national assets - inserted itself to abduct civilians and who bears command responsibility.
First Son, Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, superintends the SFC and special operations in the country, although it remains unclear whether or not he personally authorised the ongoing operation in which mainly Opposition supporters are targeted.
Other unanswered questions include why the accused have never been produced in court as required by the Constitution, and the physical state of the suspects.
“What the people should know is that when we carry out operations, we as SFC don’t have detention centres; so, we hand over the people (arrested) to the police …” said Maj Denis Omara, the SFC spokesperson.
Such suspects, he noted, are mostly transferred to either Old Kampala Police Station or Central Police Station in Kampala and the “police [are] always at the centre of the joint operations.”
Police have previously disassociated themselves from the operations in which plain-clothed armed operatives grab their targets, blindfold and bundle them into vans commonly known as drones to unknown destinations.
Asked about the latest claims by SFC that police were aware and eventually took custody of the suspects, police spokesman Fred Enanga responded: “What did the President [Museveni] say?”
“The President’s word is final and that is all,” he added, referring to the February 23 letter in which the commander-in-chief expressly said SFC were holding 51 suspects.
“Too bad for the traitors. These poor youth (suspects), gave us the whole scheme and they are now our friends … Whatever is done in secrecy, will be proclaimed on the rooftops,” Gen Museveni wrote, quoting the Book of Luke 12:3 in the Bible.
Relatives, in interviews for a series, Missing Persons, which this this newspaper has been publishing, provided accounts of how security operatives, mostly dressed in black, abducted their loved ones from homes, markets, on the roads and at work places, never to be seen again.
The abductions began at the height of campaigns for the January 14 presidential elections and the operatives mainly targeted supporters of then presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, who stood on the National Unity Platform (NUP) party ticket.
The State initially denied its security operatives were hounding the Opposition supporters and holding dozens incommunicado until the President, on February 13, disclosed that the individuals presumed missing were in fact in State custody.
Gen Museveni on the day ordered security agencies to publish the names of the suspects, but the directive instead triggered a public disagreement between Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and the police.
The army claimed it had compiled and submitted particulars of the missing persons to the police, who in turn demanded that the suspects be transferred to their custody so that they could account for the physical persons indicated on the UPDF list.
After weeks of ping pong, and amid growing condemnation and pressure from the media, lawmakers and development partners, Internal Affairs minister Gen Jeje Odongo, on February 4, tabled a list in Parliament that contained the names, places and dates of kidnaps [arrests], reasons for the arrest of 177 individuals.
He said majority of the suspects were still in incarceration at Makindye Military Barracks, while a handful were charged in court and remanded to Kitalya Prison in Wakiso District.
The government list of missing persons, which minister Odongo said will keep “evolving”, shows the State is preferring principally four charges against them: being in possession of military stores, participating in riots, meeting [and] planning to conduct post-election violence and fighting with arresting officers.
NUP, on the other hand, has produced a list containing 680 names of its supporters, who party leaders allege were abducted by security operatives and their whereabouts remain unknown.
Only 71 of the people on the government list are on NUP’s list, leaving hundreds unaccounted for.
In a telephone interview yesterday, SFC spokesman, Maj Omara, said they have engaged in the impugned operations because some of the Opposition actors have sinister motives and trained personnel “who require special military attention from the SFC”.
“They are not just politicians as they appear. That is why SFC comes in… our role is to boost the operations,” he said, adding that investigations are ongoing and the devious groups will soon be named.
Maj Omara also revealed that in a joint security operation on Tuesday night, they arrested more than 30 suspected ringleaders of a planned Opposition demonstration.
It was unclear if the persons picked up had anything to do with Bobi Wine’s clarion call for mass protests over results of the January 14 poll he claims was rigged for Mr Museveni.
The Electoral Commission declared Mr Museveni winner with 58 per cent of the votes and said Mr Kyagulanyi scored 35 per cent, a result that the NUP leader controverted at a press conference on Tuesday, during which he claimed to have won with 54 per cent while the incumbent posted 38.8 per cent.
The political fall-out from the elections and reported disappearances of citizens prompted Kampala Archbishop Cyprian Lwanga to liken the ruling NRM government to the past regime of Idi Amin, a comparison that President Museveni has outrightly rejected.
“While it is correct to be concerned when there are arrests and when people are not brought to court quickly, it is tendentious, dishonest and malicious to compare these mistakes to Amin’s time or present the situation as incurable,” he noted in his February 23 missive.
Whereas Maj Omara said SFC was holding no person, he claimed in yesterday’s interview that the suspects were in “very good state”, despite videos circulating on social media showing them in bad shape.
The spokesman did not account for his pinpoint knowledge about health of the missing persons and their long detention without being arraigned in court.
“If the State is interested in a case, especially like a treasonous case, they can hold onto suspects for as long as they can so that they can obtain the information they need from that suspect.
In some cases such as these, the SFC doesn’t have to act [based] on any law for as long as it is protecting the bigger majority of Ugandans.”
● Who are the suspects in SFC custody: names, political affiliation and occupations?
● Where were they arrested from?
● Why are they being held?
● Where are they being held?
● Is it a gazetted detention facility?
● In what conditions are they being kept?
● Have they been allowed access to legal advice?
● Have family members been allowed to see them?
● What is the state of their physical and mental health?
● Who arrested them and why?
● Were the arrests conducted in accordance with the law?
● Why are they being held beyond the 48-hour limit?
● Why haven’t they been produced before court?
● Does the President have legal authority to free any of the suspects?
● Can people held in this manner expect a free trial?
● Does SFC have the mandate to arrest, detain suspects?
● Who has operational command over the arrests?
● Where are the people who NUP claims are missing, but weren’t on the government list?
● Who are the people on the government list that NUP claims it does not know about?
● Why were they arrested?
● If there is or was a plot to overthrow the government, why haven’t the suspects been tried for the alleged capital offence?
● What are the military stores the suspects allegedly possessed?
● Who are the investigating officers?
● What is the timeline for the investigations?
● If the probe hasn’t been completed, what evidence did SFC rely on to pick up the persons?
What the Constitution says…
Article 23. Protection of personal liberty
(2) A person arrested, restricted or detained shall be informed immediately, in a language that the person understands, of the reasons for the arrest, restriction or detention and of his or her right to a lawyer of his or her choice.
(3) A person arrested or detained …(b) upon reasonable suspicion of his or her having committed or being about to commit a criminal offence under the laws of Uganda, shall, if not released earlier, be brought to court as soon as possible but, in any case, not later than 48 hours from the time of his or her arrest.
(5) Where a person is restricted or detained ---
(a) The next-of-kin of that person shall, at the request of that person, be informed as soon as practicable of the restriction or detention;
(b) The next-of-kin, lawyer and personal doctor of the person shall be allowed reasonable access to that person; and,
(c) That person shall be allowed access to medical treatment including at the request and at the cost of that person, access to private medical treatment.
(6) Where a person is arrested in respect of criminal offence;
(a) The person is entitled to apply to the court to be released on bail and the court may grant that person bail on such condition as the court considers reasonable;
(b) In the case of an offence which is triable by the High Court, as well as by a subordinate court, if that person has been remanded in custody in respect of the offence for six days before trial, that person shall be released on bail on such conditions as the court considers reasonable.
(c) In the case of an offence triable only by the High Court, if the person has been remanded in custody for more than 180 days before the case is committed to the High Court, that person shall be released on bail on such conditions as the court considers reasonable.
(7) A person unlawfully arrested, restricted or detained by any other person or authority shall be entitled to compensation from that other person or authority, whether it is the State or any agency of the State or other person or authority.
(9) The right to an order of habeas corpus shall be inviolable and shall not be suspended.
“By the time I made my broadcasts on … February, 13, 2021, SFC was still “holding” 53 persons. Since that time, two persons have been released, one had a problem of TB. The other 51 have been with SFC, helping them to expose the whole criminal scheme of elements of the Opposition plus their local parasite and foreign backers,” President Museveni’s February 23 letter.
“What the people should know is that when we carry out operations, we as SFC don’t have detention centres; so, we hand over the [arrested] people to the police,” Maj Denis Omara, SFC spokesperson.
“What did the President say [about the arrests and where suspects were being detained]? … The President’s word is final,” Fred Enanga, police spokesperson.
“What is happening with our young people being [abducted] all over the country, and what we have is simply a military junta. They organise elections to smear some legitimacy. The [abducted] by the different security organization are to suppress and silence the opposition,” Dr Kizza Besigye, February NTV interview
“In the faces of those whose children are being kidnapped, missing and in detention and killed, I think the presidents can come on one round table to discuss some of these matters. I am glad that 51 people are going to be freed from ungazetted places. The violence, [abductions], torture on Opposition figures should call for stakeholder’s discussions to talk about the cause and not the symptoms,” Norbert Mao, Democratic Party president-general.
“Thousands of our supporters have been abducted from their houses and we have identified them, but the government has only identified 177. All these have been taken to unknown detention centres while others [were] produced before the military courts,” Bobi Wine, former presidential candidate.
“We don’t have anything to do with that matter anymore. As you have been told, the Minister of Internal Affairs [will] handle the matter. He will pronounce himself on the floor of Parliament but I can’t tell when that will happen. [Gen Jeje Odongo tabled the list on March 4 – Editor],” Lt Col Deo Akiiki, Deputy UPDF spokesperson