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Human Rights Watch Accuses Uganda of Torturing Political Opponents - 2004-03-29

The international group Human Rights Watch says Uganda's security forces harass and torture supporters of the country's political opposition.

Opposition supporters who challenge Uganda's one-party system and the 18-year rule of President Yoweri Museveni are often jailed and severely beaten by the country's security agents.

Those are among the findings of a report by Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch Uganda researcher Jemera Rone said the government has set up what she calls a shadow sector of security operations that was originally meant to deal with armed rebel groups and crime waves. "We found that the Ugandan military and security forces seem very eager to ferret out the people who have been political activists that they suspect of having ties to rebel groups, and to bring them in and hold them in safe houses and in incommunicado detention, and many times torture them and get confessions," she said.

The organization describes harrowing acts of torture such as tying hands and feet behind prisoners' backs and suspending them for hours or days.

The report also refers to safe houses, illegal detention places the government set up in 2001, where suspected opposition supporters are held incommunicado for months.

Ms. Rone called on the Ugandan government to thoroughly investigate these and other torture allegations.

Opposition Member of Parliament Aggrey Awori, of the Uganda People's Congress, agrees with the Human Rights Watch report. He recalled how one of his supporters, a former manager of Uganda Commercial Bank, was charged with treason, locked up for two months and severely tortured.

Mr. Awori said he was able to get his supporter out on bail. "If I had not come to his rescue, we do not know what else could have happened to him. We do admit that any government must have a security apparatus against subversion or terrorism. But they do not have to go outside the parameters of the law to harass people, hold them beyond 48 hours permissible in the constitution, subject them to torture and false allegations, which cannot be sustained in courts of law," he said.

Mr. Awori says he knows of around 150 cases of opposition supporters who are, or were, jailed and tortured. He says security forces are acting on orders from above, mainly to scare Ugandans into voting for a constitutional amendment that would allow President Museveni to run for a third term.

Presidential press assistant Francis Onapito Ekomoloit was not immediately available to comment on the Human Rights Watch report. But in a VOA interview at the end of January, Mr. Ekomoloit said the Ugandan government does not tolerate torture. "The Ugandan government is very categorical in its opposition to any kind of torture and cruelty. It is true that there have been allegations of torture involving some state agencies but all these allegations have been subject to investigation. Where fault has been found there has been adequate redress," he said.

Mr. Ekomoloit said President Museveni himself has been very harsh with army officers and others who were found to have practiced torture. He said safe houses were used to interrogate suspected terrorists from the country's west, the Congo border, and in northern Uganda, but after the matter was raised in parliament, the safe houses are now what he called history.

Under pressure from international donors, the Ugandan government has taken tentative steps to transform the one-party state into a multi-party political system.

But its 2002 Political Parties and Organizations Act imposes strict limits on how and where political parties can establish offices, and subjects them to difficult registration requirements.