KAMPALA – The US government has accused the Uganda government of harassing opposition leaders and their supporters through torturing their supporters and denying them freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
In its 2019 report titled ‘2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,’ the US government refers to the continued arrest, torture and killing of supporters of Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, and Dr Kizza Besigye of the People’s Government.
The report says that in 2019, the Uganda government was also responsible for harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; detainment of political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; lack of independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, among others.
On freedom of expression, the report says the government restricted citizens’ ability to criticize its actions. It also restricted some political symbols, musical lyrics, and theatrical performances.
The report takes on government for harassing supporters of Kyagulanyi’s People Power movement, who were found wearing the red beret.
“On September 18, the government published guidelines that banned the public from wearing red berets, saying that the berets would henceforth be considered a military uniform and therefore the exclusive property of the state. On October 1, Kyagulanyi reported that the UPF and UPDF had started arresting People Power supporters whom they found wearing the red berets. The UPF on numerous occasions also confiscated People Power movement insignia, especially red berets and T-shirts with pro-Kyagulanyi messages,” the report states.
“On August 13, the UPF raided the Democratic Party’s (DP) offices, arrested four supporters, and confiscated 300 T-shirts with pro-Kyagulanyi messages commemorating the one-year anniversary of Kyagulanyi’s arrest and torture. The UPF said the T-shirts bore messages inciting violence. The UPF released the four DP supporters later that day and said it only called them in for interrogation,” it adds.
According to the US government, the Uganda government continued to use the Public Order Management Act to limit the right to assemble and disrupted opposition and civil society-led public meetings and rallies.
“While the law only requires individuals to “notify” police of their intention to hold a public meeting, it also gives the police the power to block meetings they deem “unsuitable.” Typically, the UPF simply fails to respond to “notifications” from opposition groups, thereby creating a legal justification for disrupting almost any gathering. On May 30, the UPF fired teargas and bullets into the air to disperse opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party officials and supporters as they held a public rally at their offices in Iganga town. The UPF said the rally was an illegal assembly, since the police had not approved it,” the report reads in part.
The report also pins government on Arbitrary Arrests, and unlawful detention, particularly of dissidents in 2019.
The report says police and the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) on numerous occasions arrested and harassed opposition politicians, their supporters, and private citizens who engaged in peaceful protests and held public rallies.
“On October 22, the military police and the UPF arrested 20 female Makerere University students who were protesting planned tuition fee increases. The police released the students on October 23 and the university administration then suspended them indefinitely. According to local media, on the evening of October 23, unidentified individuals kidnapped one of the student protestors, Siperia “Mollie” Ssasiraabo, detained her at an unknown facility, beat her, and dropped her off at a Kampala hospital the next morning,” the report says.
“Between October 23 and October 30, the student protests at Makerere continued and local media showed videos of military police officers beating journalists and students with sticks, ransacking university residence halls, firing teargas into the university library, residence halls, and classrooms, as well as sounds of explosions in residence halls,” it adds.
The US government also accuses the Kampala regime of subjecting journalists and media houses to violence, harassment, and intimidation.
“On February 7, the UPF arrested five local and international journalists who were working undercover to report on the theft of drugs in public hospitals. The UPF stated that it arrested the five on charges of “illegal possession of classified drugs. On February 8, the UPF released the journalists on police bond but said investigations into the case continued. Civil society contacts also reported that in October the president expelled a journalist from a press conference after the reporter asked a question about the country’s fiscal debt,” the report adds.
The US report also says while the Uganda constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, the government did not always respect this provision.
“Corruption, understaffing, inefficiency, and executive-branch interference with judicial rulings often undermined the courts’ independence. The FHRI reported that in the Gulu judicial district alone, it would take the High Court 10 years to resolve a backlog of 800 cases at the current rate of 80 per year. The executive, especially security agencies, did not always respect court orders. On September 11, Local media aired images of CMI officers in plain clothes storming court premises and arresting a lawyer and four suspects in the 2017 murder of senior police official Andrew Felix Kaweesi, after the court granted them bail.”
According to the report, Ugandan Authorities detained numerous opposition politicians and activists on politically motivated grounds.
“Authorities released many without charge but charged others with crimes including treason, annoying the president, cyber-harassment, inciting violence, holding illegal meetings, and abuse of office. No reliable statistics on the total number of political detainees or prisoners were available. On April 29, the UPF arrested Kyagulanyi on charges of holding an illegal assembly in relation to a 2018 protest he held in Kampala against a proposed tax. The court remanded Kyagulanyi later that day until May 2, when it released him on bail upon condition that he not participate in “unlawful assemblies.” The trial continued at year’s end,” the report states.
“On August 2, a court sentenced dissident Stella Nyanzi to 18 months in prison for cyber-harassment of the president (see sections 1.c. and 2.a). On August 15, Nyanzi and the state filed counterappeals, and on September 25, the court attempted to hear the proceedings in the judge’s chambers, in an effort to prevent public viewing of the procedures,” it adds.