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EU Rights Envoy Condemns Uganda Security Force Abuses

FILE - Ugandan army soldiers and police officers stand in front of a crowd during an opposition protest in Kampala, Uganda, Aug. 31, 2018.
FILE - Ugandan army soldiers and police officers stand in front of a crowd during an opposition protest in Kampala, Uganda, Aug. 31, 2018.

The European Union's rights envoy, Eamon Gilmore, in a visit to Uganda, has condemned rights abuses by security forces against critics, including torture and forced disappearances. A Uganda government spokesman has denied the accusation of systemic abuse and says some individual officers found guilty of abuse were punished.

Speaking to the media after meeting Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, Wednesday evening, Gilmore said the rights of detained people must be respected.

Gilmore noted a rise in allegations of torture, arbitrary arrests, and forced disappearances by security forces during Uganda’s 2021 elections.

He said those responsible for the abuses, as well as extrajudicial killings in November 2020, need to be brought to justice.

“Torture has no place in our world," said Gilmore. "When I’m sitting down with the government leader, whether its President Museveni or anybody else, what I have in my mind is the unfortunate detainee who’s being tortured. And I’ve seen the pictures, and I’ve seen the videos. And I’ve been horrified by what I have seen in terms of the way people have been treated in detention and I want that to end.”

Gilmore also called the use of military courts to try civilians inappropriate.

He said Museveni told him he would handle and address the accusations of abuse. But the EU envoy said actions speak louder than words.

Uganda’s minister for information, Chris Baryomunsi, denied Gilmore’s claims that security forces were responsible for disappearances. In a phone interview with VOA, he blamed a few bad actors for cases of abuse.

“Yes, I know there are some cases which have been reported of people who are tortured," he said. "But we have insisted, that’s the handiwork of few undisciplined officers in our system and when those incidents occur, usually we investigate, and we bring to book whoever is found to be on the wrong side of the law.”

Baryomunsi added that civilians were only tried in military courts when they were found in possession of military-grade weapons.

Thirty-one supporters of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) party, arrested in November 2020, are in prison awaiting trial by a military court.

Authorities accuse them of being in possession of explosive devices, which they deny.

Musician turned NUP politician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, said many of the party's supporters detained during the election are still missing, while some reappeared with broken limbs and other signs of torture.

The Kampala-based Foundation for Human Rights Initiative’s Livingston Ssewanya welcomed the EU’s condemnation of abuse.

“Most of the human rights challenges we face right now are largely attributed to the growing culture of impunity," he said. "If only there was a deliberate effort by the state to address the question of impunity.”

Ugandan writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija fled to Germany in February after he allegedly was tortured by the military special forces command.

Security forces took Rukirabashaija into custody in December and held him at a military facility for two weeks before he faced charges of offending Lt. General Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

The general is President Museveni’s son and is seen as his possible successor.

EU rights envoy Gilmore said Rukirabashaija was among the many cases of torture they have noted.

A March report by Human Rights Watch accused Uganda’s police, army, and military intelligence of hundreds of cases of forced disappearances and torture.

It called on the Ugandan government and security agencies to shut down illegal detention facilities and ensure justice for victims.

Uganda’s military spokesman dismissed the report as political and without evidence.