Some of the suspects who were arrested after the Kasese killings display their wounds in the Jinja Magistrate’s Court on December 14, 2016. The suspects say they were tortured by security. PHOTO | ABUBAKER LUBOWA

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Torture: We have learnt nothing from history

What you need to know:

  • In his February 13, 2021 address on the security situation in the country, following a spate of arbitrary abductions of NUP supporters by security operatives driving numberless vans, President Museveni rejected any comparison of his government to the “low-calibre”—Amin and Obote—regimes, saying his security apparatus are taught not to be part of the culture of violating people’s rights with impunity. One year later, the kidnap, torture and detention of writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija last month reawakened old demons as the spectre of torture returned to haunt the country, write Frederic Musisi & Derrick Wandera

Four months after seizing power in 1986, President Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) government established a Commission of Inquiry to look into the cycle of violence that plagued the country since the post-colonial era.

The Commission was established by Legal Notice. 5 of 1986 and then Attorney General Joseph Mulenga appointed High Court Judge at the time, Arthur Oder as its head. Justice Oder would later as Supreme Court judge, rule against President Museveni’s election victory in the 2001 and 2006 Kizza Besigye election petition. 

Other members of the commission included then Makerere University law lecturer, who later on became Attorney General, Khiddu Makubuya, Jack Luyombya (NRM), John Kawanga (DP), Joan Kakwenzire, later appointed a senior Presidential advisor, and John Nagenda, who was later appointed a senior media advisor to the president. 

The commission was to inquire into all aspects of violations of human rights and violations, breaches of rule law and excessive abuses of power committed against persons by the past regimes.

It was to find out their servants, agents or agencies, arrests and consequent detentions without trial, arbitrary imprisonment and abuse of the powers of detention and restriction under the Public Order and Security Act, 1967.

Others include denial of any person of a fair, and public trial before an independent and impartial court established by law, and the subjection of any person to torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, and the manner in which state security agencies executed their functions, the extent to which the practices and procedures employed in the execution of such functions may have violated the human rights of any person.

The Commission’s final report titled “Pearl of Blood” delivered in October 1994 detailed grim tales by survivors or their families and macabre accounts by some of the actors in the armies of presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin armies 1962 to 1970, 1971 to 1979, and 1980 to July 1985, respectively.

“The exact number of Ugandans that have lost their lives at the hands of government agents and agencies since independence is impossible to establish. The murder of individuals, mass murders, and arbitrary deprivation of life or extra judicial executions is a violation of the right to life, one of the most fundamental rights and freedoms of an individual,” the report reads in part.

For instance, under Amin the army and security outfits that operated through loose command structures wielded immense powers and by impulse determined the fate of hundreds kidnapped.

Paradoxically, in 1974 President Amin doubling as Commander-in-Chief and Minister of Defence, constituted a Commission of Inquiry to look into the disappearance of people—their identities, establish whether they are dead or alive— since his takeover on January 25, 1971.

The haunted present

The commission detailed that: “The location of many military barracks within or close to large urban population centres greatly contributed to human rights violations by the military. One of the most notorious barracks where many Ugandans lost their lives at the hands of Amin’s soldiers, was Makindye. After the military coup of January, 1971, the barracks was turned into the headquarters of the Military Police and has remained so ever since.”

Novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was arrested early last month for using offensive communication against President Museveni and his son Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba. He says he was held in detention centres run by the Special Forces Command (SFC), an elite brigade that among others offers protection to the president and his family as well as vital security installations in the country.

The harrowing account—of kidnap and torture—of the writer has elicited a public uproar. 

Mr Kakwenza’s near-to-death ordeal struck a chord with countless tales of hundreds of especially National Unity Platform (NUP) supporters, especially from the Central region who have been menaced by security agencies, JATT, CMI, and the Special Forces Command. When a Buganda Court Magistrate warned Kakwenza from discussing his case in the media. He instead stripped and displayed his torture marks before roving cameras and later fleeing to exile.

Since last year, National Unity Platform (NUP), lead by Mr Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, has been parading their supporters who were tortured during weekly press briefings. Some of them were maimed and others suffered broken limbs. Moses Sserugo claims he was targeted—knocked by a police patrol car as he joined legions of Kyagulanyi’s supporters during presidential campaigns in 2020. His leg was amputated.

The German philosopher Georg Hegel famously said: “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

Human rights lawyer George Musisi told Daily Monitor newspaper that what is unfolding today strikes a similarity with what happened in the past.

“Some of the problems President Museveni highlighted for going to the bush is that a government should be accountable; we are seeing arrests but of people not facing law, so we are back to dark days,” Mr Musisi said.

Early this month, the Ministry for the Presidency paid for a four-page advertorial in The East-African, sister newspaper to this publication, to [re]publish President Museveni’s epistle titled “guidelines on managing rioters, terrorists, criminals and looters and methods of arresting and handling suspects.”

The guidelines directed to all chiefs of security organs, UPDF, police, Internal Security Organisation, and External Security Organisation, were first issued in October 2018, two months after the Arua by-election debacle, and successive ugly scenes between police and youth supporters of Mr Kyagulanyi.

“The fundamental starting point is the NRA principle of being an army of the people, the masses (the farmers, the factory workers, the patriotic public servants and the Ugandans that are struggling to get a foothold in the emerging money economy) but also serving well the law-abiding foreigners that visit our country,” Mr Museveni wrote. “Each of these is like our father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter or grandchild if they are Ugandans. If they are not Ugandans, then they are our honoured guests. These must never be beaten, pushed or be barked at for any reason.”

The President’s directives largely went ignored. Since the early 2000s — when President Museveni’s former physician during the 1980-86 NRA rebel war, Dr Kizza Besigye broke ranks with the regime after authoring a paper detailing how the former had betrayed ideals that inspired them to go to the bush —the country continues to witness state-sponsored violence.

“Mr Museveni has progressively become unpopular so he has to deploy more. Otherwise what happened from the word go is standard; nothing surprised me in this election. Sometimes one considers that the level of violence will not exceed what one has seen; the abductions and people dying in detention is something I didn’t see at the beginning,” Dr Besigye, who sought presidency four times and contested election results twice in the Supreme Court, said on the 2021 election campaigns in an interview with this newspaper early last year.

Since mid-2018, the country witnessed unprecedented impunity and high-handedness by security agencies; arbitrary detentions, arrests and kidnaps, torture, wanton murders, among others. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, many security operatives wore face masks to conceal their identities, or used drones to pick up their targets.

History repeats itself

In his February 13, 2021 address, amid widespread reports of ‘disappearances’, an euphemism for civilians taken by security operatives without a disclosed offence during the Amin/Obote regimes, President Museveni said the practice would stop and “action will be taken” where security agencies have erred.

“We never cover up. There’s nothing, we do, and hide,” he said.  

However, there has been a conspicuous silence as no security officer has been brought to book for any incident such as in the November 18-19, 2020 protests in which 48 people were killed by “stray bullets” or for the December 2020 murder of former national boxing team captain, Isaac Senyange, for which the President apologised on national television.

Some families continue seeking answers for the whereabouts of their loved ones, while hundreds are still languishing in prisons. Others continue to face trial in the military Court Martial. Several families were put on notice not to ever speak about their ordeal.

The police and the army’s public relations often read from rehearsed scripts as these security agencies continue to chronically top rankings of human rights violations.

Mr Musisi told Daily Monitor that, “What’s even worrying is that we are back to the safe houses era. You hear a lot of grim stories; one person gets out and they tell you of more than 200 people in there. There was a time when someone was taken by a security agency and you would know they are likely at SIU Kireka Police (Special Investigation Unit), today you hear of places in Entebbe, Mbuya, Bukoto, and the stories coming out are harrowing.”

The fall-out from torture and arbitrary detentions has further entangled all arms of government; the largely pliant Parliament has been hushed in its position on the matter, the executive defends that the action of a “few rogue elements” cannot be used in generalisation, while the conscience of the judiciary has been stained; on many occasions tortured suspects have been tried before judicial officers, which is a travesty of justice.

“Security agencies have turned into enforcers of the law for the ruling party while the bastardisation of the justice system hinged on politics in the past [governments] is the order today,” said Mr Musisi.

According to the 1994 “Pearl of Blood” report, the army, police, state security agencies and the Executive have been central in the perpetuation of the cycle of violence. From 1962 to 1986—to date— torture has been a prominent tool in the repertoire of tactics by the successive regimes against opponents, both real and perceived.

During the Commission hearings, witnesses gave testimonies about the dreadful murder of their relatives, family members and colleagues at work. “The degree of brutality and cruelty that the victims were subjected to is often unbelievable. Few survived to tell the tale,” the report notes.

In 1966 the country was plunged into anarchy, following the parliamentary crisis after MP Daudi Ocheng accused Prime Minister Obote and deputy army chief Idi Amin of smuggling gold and ivory in then Zaire, of the attack on Lubiri and suspension of the 1962 Constitution. The Obote government then embarked on purging all Buganda Kingdom loyalists.

Witnesses say

According to Witness Sentamu, a prisons officer at Luzira at the time, the Lubiri massacre was incited by Obote as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Sentamu said Obote had earlier, made a threatening speech while at Soroti in which, among other things, he said: “I warn you people of Soroti, if you behave like a certain tribe you know very well, I shall not hesitate at all. I will send my boys to destroy both you and your property; I repeat, I will send my boys to destroy both your lives and property I say this for God and my country. A good Muganda is a dead one.”

“Dead bodies were transferred in a lorry from the palace to Luzira Prison cemetery where they were buried in mass graves. According to Sentamu, many of the dead were brought in without heads and some bodies had the intestines falling out. All types of people, men, women, children, were among the dead.”

Another witness, James Rubakuba, told the commission that thousands lost their lives during the attack or after.  People were buried alive as others screamed for help. “Sir, we are dying of suffocation, help us friends. When Rubakuba asked Capt Gaitano Opoka who was in charge of the transfer of the dead and dying, the Captain replied that since all the people under transfer had been signed as dead bodies, they had to be buried,” reads part of the report.

The attack of Lubiri cultivated the long-standing rivalry between Mengo, the seat of Buganda Kingdom, and the Uganda Peoples’ Congress. It was this schism that Mr Museveni capitalised on after losing the 1980 elections and launched a guerilla in Luweero to the north of Buganda.

In 1971, Amin toppled Obote while he was away to Singapore for the Common Wealth Heads of State meeting. Immediately, according the report, many army officers, mainly of Langi and Acholi origin were massacred, acts which continued up to the end of Amin’s regime.

Amin’s notorious State Research Centre (SRC) at Kyaggwe Road, Nakasero, next to State House, according to the Oder report, accounts for the largest number of cold-blooded murders in Uganda’s post-independence history.  The building housing the SRC had an underground tunnel connecting to the nearby President’s Lodge.

One of the former SRC directors, a witness in the commission hearings, Lt Col Francis Itabuka, was reluctant to say anything on the issue of people being killed at Nakasero - sometimes saying “no”, and then changing to “very few’. He maintained that: “I have never seen a dead body at State Research but what I know is sometimes they used to kill some people”.

According to the report, murders occurred in all army and security institutions during this period. 

“A civilian who was detained in an army barracks, rarely emerged alive therefrom. Civilian relatives of soldiers under detention or already murdered, were a frequent targets of the murderous army. To investigate the whereabouts or fate of any detainee often meant death or torture for the investigator. This probably explains why many Ugandans preferred to quietly mourn when a relative disappeared,”

Amin’s Public Safety Unit, the report notes, did not stop at torturing a victim until he was hospitalised or dumped into the mortuary, but also ‘followed’ the body until they were sure the victim was completely dead. 

“They left instructions with mortuary attendants that whoever touched the relevant body would also be killed.”

President Amin was eventually toppled in 1979 after which atrocities were committed in areas associated with Amin’s regime. In West Nile, the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF)—a political group formed by exiled Ugandans opposed to Amin—troops were implicated in the massive violation of human rights, particularly from May 1980. 

The early post-Amin governments were unstable; Godfrey Binaisa ruled for 68 days, Yusuf Lule for 11 months, then briefly the Paulo Muwanga military commission, and subsequently the Obote II regime, wherein more human rights violations were recorded. Obote was in July 1985 toppled by his army commander Tito Okello who was edged out by Museveni’s NRA on January 25, 1986.

The Obote II regime, according to the report, represented the second ‘murder peak”, after Amin’s time. “Many Ugandans lost their lives at the hands of State Security personnel. 

The UNLA, in its efforts to dislodge the guerilla militias of Yoweri Museveni, Andrew Kayiira, etc., from the Luwero Triangle and other areas; ignored national and international law of armed conflicts and affected, tortured and murdered suspected bandits/guerillas or their alleged collaborators in unknown numbers.”

Between 1980-85, operation Panda Gari was launched around greater Kampala.  It was a system under which the army or police, in swoops, collected people in large numbers from an area forced to board vehicles and transported them elsewhere for purposes of identifying whether or not they were anti-government.

“Many of those arrested in Panda Gari and other operations, ended up at a private house known as Argentina House which had been converted into a human ‘slaughter house’. Argentina House was so named because of Argentina’s notorious record for torture and killings, the origin of the term ‘the disappeared’.

Sometime in late 2015, technocrats in the Ministry of Justice mulled a second commission of inquiry into human rights violations between 1986 to 2007, largely to document human rights abuses committed in Northern Uganda during the nearly two-decade LRA insurgency, as a follow-up to Justice Oder’s Commission but it did not materialise.  

Amin’s torture chambers

Idi Amin’s notorious State Research Centre (SRC) at Kyaggwe Road, Nakasero, next to State House, according to the Oder report, accounts for the largest number of cold-blooded murders in Uganda’s post-independence history. The building housing the SRC had an underground tunnel connecting to the nearby President’s Lodge.

One of the SRB torture chambers. PHOTO | COURTESY

There are torture chambers also located in Lubiri , Mengo.

Amin’s torture victims would first be blindfolded and made to rotate inorder to confuse them and later brought there. Women and men were left without food and it is believed that more than 20,000 people died there.

Findings

Commission of Inquiry established by Legal Notice. 5 of 1986 was to look into the cycle of violence that plagued the country since the post-colonial era.

The Commission’s final report titled “Pearl of Blood” delivered in October 1994 detailed grim tales by survivors or their families and macabre accounts by some of the actors in the armies of presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin armies 1962 to 1970, 1971 to 1979, and 1980 to July 1985, respectively.

“The exact number of Ugandans that have lost their lives at the hands of government agents and agencies since independence is impossible to establish. The murder of individuals, mass murders, and arbitrary deprivation of life or extra judicial executions is a violation of the right to life, one of the most fundamental rights and freedoms of an individual,” the report reads in part.

For instance, under Amin the army and security outfits that operated through loose command structures wielded immense powers and by impulse determined the fate of hundreds kidnapped.


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