Police Brutality and Torture in Uganda

By Sarah Nagle*, Advocacy Intern, TASSC International

Sitting down with me in his office on a hot July afternoon, Léonce Byimana, TASSC’s Executive Director, asked me in an urgent tone if I had been able to review news clips detailing the brutal treatment suffered by Mayor Godfrey Byamukama from Kamwenge Town Council in Uganda. The clips were graphic and difficult to watch, but they display how torture is occurring in Uganda, despite publicity efforts by the government to the contrary. Torture is injustice, Léonce notes, but the only way to stop such actions is for the atrocities to catch the eye of the public.

Léonce admits that until recently, he was unaware of the extent of human rights violations in Uganda. The country has been lauded for accepting refugees from South Sudan and other neighboring countries, has signed the 1986 United Nations’ Convention against Torture, and in 2012 wrote its own anti-torture legislation. One of only 10 African nations to pass domestic anti-torture legislation, Uganda appears to be an ardent supporter of human rights. However, events in recent years demonstrate the gap between the legislation and its implementation. 

For example, in 2010, two suspects were tortured to death during interrogations by the Ugandan police’s Rapid Response Unit. In 2011, in response to protests over government corruption and cost of food and fuel, security forces used lethal force against civilians resulting in 10 deaths. In 2013, Kampala mayor Erias Lukwago, an opponent of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, said he was beaten by police. While these incidents span a broad period, they all have one important detail in common: no members of the security forces have been held accountable for the wrongs committed during any of these cases. 

Viewed by many to be lip service intended to pacify the international community, Uganda’s Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act of 2012 calls for individuals to be prosecuted for crimes they commit in their official capacity. The Act was initially hailed as progressive, but another 1,016 torture complaints against the Ugandan police have arisen since 2012, and the Act has yet to be used to charge a single official. 

The government also passed the oppressive Public Order Management Act in August 2013, just a year later. This law grants police wide discretionary powers to permit or disallow gatherings, and was used during the 2016 presidential campaign to arrest opposition members. Critics say that President Museveni is relying on brute force to suppress growing opposition to his rule. On September 9th and 10th, police in the towns of Soroti and Jinja in Eastern Uganda fired teargas into a peaceful crowd that had gathered to hear presidential candidate Amama Mobazi speak. Such police brutality shows that the 2013 law suppressing individual liberties is actually being implemented, while the 2012 anti-torture law is nothing more than a superficial memorandum. 

Repeated occurrences of police brutality and torture have caused murmurings of dissent among civilians. Criticism of Museveni, in power since 1986, is growing. Accusations that the 2016 elections were tampered with arose after Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s principle opponent in the presidential race, was detained for a few days before the election, and least one Besigye supporter died in clashes with security forces.

Set against this backdrop of human rights violations, the Ugandan police have recently come under fire for their reaction to the March 17th murder this year of Assistant Inspector General, Andrew Felix Kaweesi. Mayor Byamukama was detained by police, who accused him of masterminding this murder. After they brought Byamukama to the infamous Nalufenya Detention Facility for questioning, the mayor had to be hospitalized for wounds sustained during torture. Photos began circulating showing him lying prone in a hospital bed with deep septic wounds on both his knees and bruises on his body.

Museveni then ordered his security chiefs to cease all forms of torture intended to extract confessions from men held in custody. The Police Chief publicly apologized for the police actions and promised that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.

Léonce Byimana, TASSC’s Executive Director, took a cynical view of these statements made by Uganda’s president and police chief. He said Museveni and the police chief were merely attempting to distance themselves from the allegations and cover up the fact they themselves were complicit in the torture of civilians.  

While Museveni’s denunciation of torture is important, actions not words are what matter in the end. It remains to be seen whether any of the individuals responsible for torture in Uganda will be held accountable for their actions.

*Sarah Nagle is an Advocacy Intern at TASSC for Summer 2017 and a student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.