The Ugandan government has failed to hold to account security officials who have unlawfully detained and tortured hundreds of government critics, opposition supporters, peaceful protesters, and others, Human Rights Watch said in a new report.
The 62-page report, “‘I Only Need Justice’: Unlawful Detention and Abuse in Unauthorized Places of Detention in Uganda” documents enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture, and other ill-treatment by the police, army, military intelligence, and Uganda’s domestic intelligence body, the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), most in unlawful places of detention in 2018, 2019, and around the January 2021 general elections.
“The Ugandan government has condoned the brazen arbitrary arrests, illegal detention, and abuse of detainees by its officials,” said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Urgent steps are needed to help victims, to hold abusive security agents to account, and to end this specter of impunity and injustice.”
Though the authorities have sometimes acknowledged these abuses, they have done little to end them or to provide justice to the victims and their families. The victims face persistent physical, mental, and economic problems during and after their detention, as well as obstacles to obtaining justice, HRW said in a release on 22 March.
Between April 2019 and November 2021, Human Rights Watch interviewed 51 people, including 34 former detainees, witnesses of abductions and arrests, government officials, members of parliament, opposition party members, diplomats, human rights activists, and journalists in Uganda’s capital, Kampala.
Former detainees described how security officials flouted criminal procedures during arrests and while holding the detainees in custody. Security officers accosted victims at their workplaces, homes, or on the streets and forced them, sometimes at gunpoint, into unmarked vehicles, usually Toyota Hiace vans, locally known as “Drones.” Victims were detained in a variety of unauthorized locations. In many cases, they were held in so-called safehouses, intended for use to protect witnesses, but instead used as makeshift detention centres run by Internal Security Organisation. In some cases, detainees were taken to an island on Lake Victoria, or held in vehicles, an underground room in the parliament building, and military barracks. A man who was detained by Internal Security in a safe house in Kyengera in 2019 said: “I saw three military tents and two State House pickups and three other vehicles, [full of] of victims just like me, but I didn’t know that when I was entering there. I thought it was someone’s home.”
On February 5, 2020, the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights released a report from investigations it had opened the previous year into allegations that ISO officials had abducted and illegally detained more than 400 people. The report confirmed that government security agencies, were detaining and abusing people in “safehouses.” The committee recommended that the relevant agencies investigate the allegations further. But the government has taken no steps to carry out the recommendation or otherwise end the unlawful, abusive practices, HRW said.
In the two months before the January 2021 general elections, and for several months afterward, incidents of abuse spiked, according to Human Rights Watch. In Kampala, and its surrounding districts, the security forces arbitrarily arrested, and sometimes forcibly disappeared government critics, opposition leaders and supporters, and alleged protestors. While the authorities have released some detainees in the course of the past year, the whereabouts of many have not been revealed.
Former detainees said that security officers denied them access to lawyers or family and tortured, beat, and shackled them, and gave them electric shocks, and injections of unidentified substances. Some detainees, men and women, experienced rape, and sexual torture during their detention.
A woman who had been held by internal security in a safehouse said that an official raped her twice, and other officials also tortured her: “I was tied up – they called it ‘Rambo’ – I was crucified. I was in pain. I stayed [in that position] for 12 hours. I was removed at 1 am in the night. [My body] was swelling before I was taken inside.”
Security officers accused some detainees of assassination attempts of high-profile government officials, spying, and colluding with rivals of President Yoweri Museveni to oust him from office. Others said they were accused of crimes such as burning down a school or stealing motorcycles. In nearly all cases of unlawful detention documented, victims alleged that security officers stole and extorted money from them or their families during arrests or as a condition of their release.
On several occasions, security officers ignored court orders to release detainees, or rearrested people who had been released on bail.
Both Ugandan and international law prohibit, in absolute terms, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and torture. Uganda’s 1995 Constitution provides that an arrested or detained person should be held in a legally recognized detention facility. The Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act of 2012, and the Human Rights (Enforcement) Act of 2019, further criminalize torture and provide for personal liability for public officers who commit human rights violations. However, no one has yet been convicted under any of these laws.
Human Rights Watch urged Ugandan authorities to close all unlawful detention centres and investigate all reports of abuses, including enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and other forms of sexual violence, and ensure that all those found responsible are held to account. Uganda’s international partners should speak out publicly about these serious violations and urge the government to ensure justice for victims, HRW added.
“The Ugandan authorities, as a matter of urgency, need to reform the police and other security agencies to dismantle the structures that have enabled these horrific abuses to occur and go unpunished,” Nyeko said. “Anything short of a complete overhaul will only perpetuate the culture of impunity and hinder the creation of rights-respecting and accountable security services.”