Human Rights Watch accuses Uganda of using unlawful detention and torture

Report says opposition members and protesters subjected to a range of abuses

Uganda’s government has been detaining and torturing government critics, opposition members and peaceful protesters, according to a new report by a human rights organisation.

The 62-page Human Rights Watch report, released on Tuesday, was based on in-person and telephone interviews with 51 people, including 34 former detainees and witnesses who say they were held in 2018 and 2019 or around the January 2021 general elections.

Detainees described being arrested at their workplaces, homes, or on the streets, and forced into unmarked vehicles at gunpoint. Sometimes they were lured to specific locations by security forces who called them pretending to be business associates or even friends. Lawyers said they were called by people claiming to be former or prospective clients, who turned out to be security personnel.

They were then held in a mixture of locations under the authority of the Internal Security Organisation, Uganda's domestic intelligence body. These included vehicles, an underground room in the parliament building, military barracks, residential houses on the outskirts of Kampala, and a location on Lwamayuba island in Lake Victoria, where detainees were forced to labour on a farm.

Torture included beatings, injections with an unknown substance, electrocution, rape and other sexual violence, and being shackled. One former detainee told the human rights organisation that captives had their nails removed. Many said they were held for months.

They say they were accused of politically motivated crimes, including spying, involvement in murders or planning to oust the president, and not given access to lawyers or family members, who were often later forced to pay money for their release.

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. Last year, he won a sixth term during a highly disputed election.

The internet was shut off for nearly five days as voting took place and results were announced, while opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi – popularly known as Bobi Wine – was placed under effective house arrest. Two months before, security forces had gunned down opposition protesters, leading to at least 54 deaths.

Important report

"Thank you Human Rights Watch for this very important report on the gross human rights abuses in Uganda, " Mr Kyagulanyi tweeted on Tuesday. "There must be accountability for these crimes against humanity."

Unlawful detention and torture are prohibited under Uganda’s constitution and domestic legislation, as well as under international human rights law.

Uganda’s parliament has previously looked into issues of illegal detention and torture. On February 5th, 2020, the parliamentary house committee on human rights released its own findings, concluding that authorities were operating so-called “safe houses” where they tortured and abused detainees with impunity.

The Irish Times has previously interviewed former detainees in Uganda who have given similar accounts of being held illegally and tortured.

Human Rights Watch said it supplied a summary of the report's findings to the office of the president, the director of public prosecutions, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the inspector general of police, the house committee on human rights, and the ministries for defence and security.

Uganda – an East African country of roughly 45 million people – is an official Irish Aid partner. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Uganda's State House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa

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