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Human Rights Watch Calls For Probe into Uganda Violence

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Human Rights Watch has called for a probe into the deadly violence and reprisals in Uganda’s western region of Ruwenzori. In a report issued Wednesday, the human rights organization also urges timely justice for all ethnic groups involved.

In July 2014 some members of the Bakonzo ethnic group attacked several police and army posts in several districts with guns, machetes, and bows, sparking reprisals from other ethnic groups, and possibly the security forces.

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“The government should arrange for a credible independent investigation to examine the circumstances of the initial attacks, the subsequent response – including the possible involvement of government forces in reprisal attacks and torture, and the adequacy of protection for civilians in the following days,” says Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Our concern is that it has been four months since the attacks occurred in July,” Burnett told VOA. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, she said, “there was abusive action on the part of the security forces some of that was even broadcast on Uganda television.”

Burnett cited indiscriminate shootings, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and torture at police stations, all of which she called “troubling”. She said despite commitments to investigate, “we have not seen any serious or meaningful investigation into those abuses.”

The report says the coordinated attacks on July 5 by members of the Bakonzo ethnic group, some wearing masks, were carried out in Kasese, Bundibugyo, and Ntoroko districts. In some areas, particularly Bundibugyo district, government forces did not adequately protect Bakonzo civilians from retaliatory attacks, including beating, mutilation, and killing.

Police and the military in Kasese district responded to the initial attacks by rounding up and detaining unarmed civilians. Human Rights Watch says there are reports that some security officials were involved in reprisal killings and beatings and that numerous victims of the violence had been buried in mass graves.

The report condemns the trial of the suspects in the violence in military courts. “In the end we saw a large number; almost 170 people, have been charge in military courts. Human rights groups and the African Commission have told Uganda not to prosecute civilians in military courts, and yet that is the tool the government has chosen to use.”

“Our concern is that military courts have been used for political expediency, or somehow to try to intimidate individuals that the government perceives to be challenging the central government.” said Burnett.

She says that’s the improper use of military justice. “Civilians can be prosecuted in civilian court,” she said, “and Ugandan courts should be able to do that.”

She also expressed concern about reports of mass graves in the area that have proliferated since the July attacks. “There are still a lot of really open and troubling questions about who are in those graves,” she said, adding “the government needs to hold transparent investigations so that people know where their loved ones are.”

The report cites local elders and community members saying there are many sites of graves in various locations.

Local media attempts to record some of the mass graves on video on July 11, was stopped by police. In addition, authorities arrested a local district council member who had taken a news crew to a mass grave in Bundimulombi and later released the person without charge, according to the report.

Human Rights Watch conducted its research into the July attacks -- and the government forces’ response -- from August to October 2014..

The organization interviewed 52 victims, witnesses, journalists, and religious and local civil society leaders, as well as local members of government and cultural leaders from the various local ethnic groups in the region.

Human Rights Watch also visited hospitals, an informal center hosting applicants for a government-initiated amnesty, and victims displaced by the violence, as well as several attack sites.