Human Rights Watch has accused Ugandan police of torture and extrajudicial killings. It recently issued a report saying an elite police and military group known as the Rapid Response Unit “frequently operates outside the law” with impunity.
The outfit, which includes elements of the police and the army, was created by Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, in 2002 to fight violent crime. It’s jointly controlled by the inspector general of police and the head of military intelligence. But over the years its operatives have been accused of gross human right abuses, including the killings of suspects in custody.
Human Rights Watch says its investigation covers the period from November 2009 to January 2011 and includes more than 100 interviews with people arrested and formerly detained by the unit, including journalists and members of civil society.
Although the unit has been operating for years, its actions play “a more high profile role” in period after a national election because “the system considers them as the sharp point of the spear when it comes to law enforcement,” says Angelo Izama, a Ugandan reporter and currently a fellow at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
The Human Rights Watch report calls on the Ugandan government to back an independent investigation into the conduct and activities of the Rapid Response Unit and “hold accountable anyone responsible for human rights violations.” The 59-page report, Violence Instead of Vigilance: Torture and Illegal Detention by Uganda's Rapid Response Unit, says, “The authorities who oversee the police need to hold abusive officers of this unit accountable.”
“Perhaps the coincidence of the report has to do with the recent events in Uganda,” says Izama. “Post-election periods have been marked by a rise in violent crimes, and the response mechanisms like this unit are more prominent.”
He says recent elections and the ensuing high crime rates are comparable to 2002, when President Yoweri Museveni brought in military personnel in response to a crime wave sweeping Kampala and other urban areas.
The Human Rights Watch report says operatives of the Rapid Response Unit carry a variety of guns, use unmarked cars and wear civilian clothing with no identifying insignia.
Izama says because of the lack of transparency, it’s hard to police the behavior of the unit, which some fear could be easily manipulated by those in power. He says the group operates in what he calls a “pale” or unregulated area of the law, comparing it to the “black market.”
Izama says there are similar problems with policing, and even managing, other government entities that deal with security:
“The bigger problem here is that you have got 14 semi-independent intelligence and armed units in the country, and the legal cover under which they operate is questionable,” he says.