Human Rights Watch: End violations and impunity in Uganda

By Daniel Bakalangude.

Since  2018, Ugandan security forces have unlawfully detained and tortured many people, including government critics and opposition supporters, often in unsanctioned or unauthorized places of detention. Some of these locations, somewhat ironically termed “safehouses,” are residential buildings converted by the authorities to be used for witness protection. In fact, they operate as makeshift detention centers under the authority of the Internal Security Organization (ISO), Uganda’s domestic intelligence body.

In August 2019, the Parliament’s House Committee on Human Rights opened an investigation into allegations that ISO officials had abducted and illegally detained more than 400 people in these safehouses and on an island in Lake Victoria, south of Kampala. On February 5, 2020, the committee released its report, concluding that the authorities, including ISO and other government agencies, were torturing, and abusing detainees in unsanctioned places of detention, notably safehouses, as well as in some legal detention centers. The committee called on the government and relevant agencies to conduct further investigations, but as of the time of this report no such investigations have taken place.

Unlawful detention, torture, and abuses continued with impunity, despite Uganda’s Constitution and other domestic laws prohibiting and criminalizing such acts, despite those acts being a violation of Uganda’s binding obligations under international human rights law, and despite the committee’s report and recommendations. During the two months leading up to and after Uganda’s January 14, 2021, general elections, less than a year after the parliamentary report was released, government security forces unlawfully detained, and forcibly disappeared government critics, opposition members, and peaceful protestors. While the authorities have released some detainees, the fate and whereabouts of many others is still unknown, leaving their families to continue to search for answers.

Based on one person and telephone interviews with 51 people, including 34 former detainees and witnesses, this report documents enforced disappearances, abductions, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, torture, and ill-treatment by the Ugandan police, army, military intelligence, and ISO officials, mostly in unsanctioned places of detention. It covers detentions by ISO in 2018, 2019, as well as arbitrary arrests and detentions by security forces around the January 2021 general elections. It explains the enduring challenges victims and their families face, before and upon release, concerning their physical, mental, and economic well-being, and the obstacles they face in obtaining justice.

Human Rights Watch interviewed men and women who had been detained in a variety of locations, such as vehicles, an underground room in the parliament building, military barracks, residential houses converted into ISO-labelled safehouses, located on the outskirts of Kampala, and Lwamayuba island in Lake Victoria. Security forces forced the detainees held on Lwamayuba island to perform labor on a farm.

Victims told Human Rights Watch security officials flouted criminal procedure requirements and sometimes used deceptive means to arrest them, such as luring victims by pretending to be business partners or friends over the phone. Some civilians were held in military detention facilities and tried before military courts. In many of the cases documented in this report, armed men including police, soldiers, and men in plainclothes, 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.”

Detainees were not allowed access to lawyers nor granted family visits and described undergoing torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment including beatings, shackling, injections with unknown substances, and the application of live electric currents to their bodies. Some former detainees, both men and women, survived rape and sexual violence, a form of torture, during their detention.

The police, military intelligence and internal security officials willfully ignored and disobeyed court orders to release detainees, including on some occasions by immediately rearresting persons released by court order, outside the courthouse or detention facilities.

Security officials accused detainees of politically motivated crimes, including high-profile killings, spying, and colluding with rivals of President Yoweri Museveni to oust him from office. In nearly all cases of unlawful detention documented by Human Rights Watch, officials stole and extorted money from the victims or their families during arrests or as a condition of their release. Several former safehouse detainees said that the then director of ISO, Frank “Kaka” Bagyenda, who was fired by President Yoweri Museveni in October 2020, played a central role in their abduction and detention, often personally interacted with detainees.

Ugandan law, as well as regional and international human rights and criminal law instruments, prohibit arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, and torture. Uganda’s 1995 Constitution guarantees personal liberty and provides that an arrested or detained person should be held in a place authorized by law. Locations designated by law as places of detention are required to be published in the Uganda Gazette, where the government publishes official notices, so they are also known as a gazetted place of detention. The constitution further requires that detainees be brought to court within 48 hours of their arrest, are allowed to have their next-of-kin informed of their detention, and are allowed reasonable access to their next-of-kin, lawyers, and medical treatment. Detainees facing criminal charges have the right to bail.

In Uganda, torture is criminalized under the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act of 2012, and the Human Rights (Enforcement) Act of 2019 which provide that public officers who commit human rights violations will be held personally liable. To date, no individual has been convicted under either legislation.

Finally, other domestic laws dictate which entities are empowered to make arrests. Under criminal procedure, only police officers are authorized to conduct arrests without an order from a magistrate or a warrant. In addition, under the Security Organisations Act, it is a criminal offense for an ISO employee to arrest or detain anyone. Private persons may also transfer a person to a police officer for them to be arrested.

In March 2018, John Martin Okoth Ochola was appointed Inspector General of Police. Three months later, the military arrested his predecessor, Kale Kayihura, brought him before a military court, and charged him with failing to secure weapons issued to security forces, failing to supervise police officers, and abetting the kidnapping and forced repatriation of Rwandan refugees. In April, Okoth Ochola ordered that the Nalufenya detention facility be changed from a Special Forces Operations base to a regular police station as part of his reform of the police force following Kayihura’s sacking. This is significant because Nalufenya had a reputation as a place of torture and prolonged detention without trial. In May, Okoth Ochola temporarily disbanded the Flying Squad Unit, an elite unit of the police established in 2013 to counter armed robberies, but subsequently, implicated in multiple serious allegations of extortion and torture.

On January 17, 2022, Human Rights Watch sent a summary of the findings of this report to the office of the President, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), the Inspector General of Police, the house committee on human rights, the ministries for defence and security, and Frank Bagyenda, requesting a response. Copies of the letters are accessible as annexes to this report.

Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Uganda to immediately close all so-called safehouses and other unauthorized detention centers. The authorities should immediately release all detainees held in such places of detention or bring them promptly before a court to be charged with a cognizable offense. The court should release detainees on bail or if there are legal grounds and it is justified in the circumstances could remand a prisoner to the custody of the Uganda Prisons Service. The ISO, UPDF and other security agencies should immediately disclose the whereabouts of all those subjected to enforced disappearances.

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the UHRC should investigate all credible allegations including enforced disappearances, unlawful detention, and torture, as well as rape and other sexual violence. Those identified as responsible should be prosecuted in fair trials. The government should also ensure victims have access to remedies including compensation as well as medical and psychological care.

Regional and international partners of Uganda should urge  government to adhere to its human rights obligations, and close safehouses and other unauthorized places of detention, end unlawful detentions,and provide justice and remedies to victims and their families ■

About the Author

Mr Daniel Bakalangudde is a Journalist, Social Critic and Human Rights Activist

Tel/Mobile: +256 – 759862222


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