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Uganda's Security Agencies Accused of Torture, Disappearances of Civilians

A man walks towards a banner depicting people allegedly killed by Ugandan security personnel, at the National Unity Platform party offices, in the Kamwokya suburb of Kampala, Uganda, March 21, 2022.

Human Rights Watch says Uganda’s security agencies are responsible for hundreds of enforced disappearances and torture among civilians. The Ugandan army describes the report as political and without evidence.

The report, titled “I Only Need Justice,” documents enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture, and other ill-treatment.

Those acts were allegedly committed by the police, army, military intelligence, and Uganda’s domestic intelligence body, the Internal Security Organization (ISO).

The report says most took place in unlawful places of detention during 2018 and 2019 and around the January 2021 general elections.

At the end of December 2020, Bukenya Ali, the singing partner of entertainer-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine, was among the 90 supporters of the National Unity Platform Party that were arrested in Kalangala district, central Uganda. He was later released on bail in June 2021 after facing trial at a military court martial.

Bukenya described to VOA what he says transpired when he was in military detention.

“These guys came out and put us on gun point and forced us to undress entirely. And then they started doing a body check. They would run their hands all over your body, even in your private parts. And you know, tell you to bend over and spread your legs. That was really humiliating,” Bukenya said.

Oryem Nyeko, the Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch, says although authorities sometimes acknowledge the abuses, they have done little to end them or provide justice to victims and their families.

Nyeko noted that even after being released, the torture victims face continuous threats and harassment.

“One of the big issues that we are trying to address through this report is that, there’s impunity. Not only do these abductions and these detentions happen but the people who perform them are not held accountable in any way, shape or form," Nyeko said.

According to the report, former detainees described how security officials flouted criminal procedures during arrests. It says, in many cases, detainees were held in unauthorized, makeshift detention centers, such as safe houses, an island in Lake Victoria, or in an underground room in the parliament building.

Uganda army spokesperson Brigadier General Felix Kulaigye, speaking to VOA by phone, said Human Rights Watch did not reach out to the army before releasing the report, which he called political.

“The allegations are politics rather than being true. The fact is, UDPF (Uganda People's Defence Force) abhors torture. Number two, even when our officers err, we have been very stern on dealing with cases of mistreating civilians. Because it has also come to our attention that some individuals who masquerade as security personnel, kidnap people and ask for ransoms,” Kulaigye said.

Samuel Herbert Nsubuga, head of the African Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, says in past years, it has been registering 1,000 cases of torture annually.

He argues that if torture victims are to get justice, the government needs to pass a witness protection law so torture survivors can take the witness stand and testify about their experience.

“Many survivors of torture have a lot of fear. Because there are so many examples of those who we have treated and rehabilitated. They would rather go back to their productive life rather than us to pursue justice by having the perpetrators punished through the courts of law,” Nsubuga said.

Human Rights Watch recommends that authorities not only investigate abuses, but also close unlawful detention centers.