An ‘avalanche’ of lawsuits against poor policing practices are weighing down the force and scaring individual police officers out of performing tasks that carry a high risk for civil liability, Inspector General of Police John Martins Okoth Ochola has said.
“Although it is difficult to measure precisely the nature and extent of victim actions against police or its administrators, there are substantial indications that civil litigation against the force and the subsequent effect to its personnel have increased significantly,” Okoth Ochola said as he opened a half-day workshop on “Understanding civil litigation from a police perspective” at police headquarters Naguru on April 22.
Interviewed for this story, an official in the Directorate of Civil Litigation said lawsuits are lodged every week against the police force.
“The story actually should not focus on how many cases are filed against the police; it should be on why those officers are doing what they are doing. Why are they that violent?” the official, who declined to be named to speak freely, said.
The Directorate of Civil Litigation is charged with legal representation of government, its agencies and allied bodies national, regional and international courts of law and tribunals and commissions. The directorate, upon receipt, acts upon notices of intention to sue government and its allied institutions and local governments within 45 days.
It also represents the government in civil proceedings instituted by or against the government, its allied institutions and local governments within the time stipulated by the law.
And according to Article 250 clause (1) of Uganda’s constitution, “where a person has a claim against the government, that claim may be enforced as a right by proceedings taken against the government by that purpose.
Clause (2) says “that civil proceedings by or against the government shall be instituted by or against the Attorney General and all documents required to be served on the government of or in connection with those proceedings shall be served on the Attorney General.”
Poor policing was on open display during the last election campaigns. Sheer police brute force failed to break the standoff over the enforcement of the Electoral Commission-sanctioned guidelines limiting attendance at rallies to 200 people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Instead, brute force triggered a wave of violence that peaked with the arrest of National Unity Platform (NUP) presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, accused of addressing a mammoth rally of more than 200 people in the eastern district of Luuka. In all, over 54 people died and scores were injured in the police and army push to put down the November 2020 riots.
Speaking at Naguru on April 22, Ochola said, “Civil litigation can also have consequences for individual officers involved, including financial costs, psychological stress, and a reluctance to perform policing tasks that carry a high risk for civil liability.”
“Some of the incidents that commonly give rise to civil litigation against police are; misuse of firearms, unlawful arrests, search and seizure, poor responses to complaints, illegal detentions, etc,” he said in another tweet on April 22.
He said the Uganda Police Force management has, “instituted a number of policies and procedures to manage and minimize the risk of civil litigation. Some of these include, but not limited to, appropriate personnel selection procedures, training, sensitization and supervision.
He said the force has “also put in place mechanisms that discipline, demote, terminate the employment of and, in some cases, file criminal charges against individual police officers whose conduct does not rise to the performance level expected. But more needs to be done.”
“I implore all unit commanders to sensitize their subordinate officers to apply the well-established police policies, procedures, rules, tactics, behaviors, and practices that are lawful, endorsed by, and acceptable within the professional, constitutional and legal limits,” he said.
“The professional practices and standards are derived from and given meaning and clarity by a variety of legal sources that include; The Constitution of Uganda, The Police Act, The Criminal Procedure Code Act, The Penal Code Act, The Evidence Act, and the Police Standing Orders, among others,” he said in another tweet.
At the institutional level, he said, “we have also embarked on in- service refresher training for our police officers especially for what we can loosely term to be “perishable skills”— skills that can diminish without training— and deemed absolutely necessary and, when neglected, can lead to lawsuits.
“I’m of the belief, that, our police officers will only perform well when properly trained, supervised and guided to apply the right tactics and judgment in the performance of their duties without negative emotions.”
The inspector general of police also urged police’s directorate of human rights to find permanent solutions to rights violations.
“To the @PoliceUg Directorate of Human Rights & Legal Services, I thank you for organizing the workshop, but I challenge you to come up with permanent solutions that end rights violations within the Institution.”
To the participants, Okoth Ochola said, “we expect your maximum attention and participation. Thereafter, we hope to see a positive change and reduction of suits against the force in your respective areas of operations.”
In June last year, Jane Frances ABODO, the director of public prosecutions, warned that her office would investigate every torture allegation reported.
And “Shall prosecute suspected perpetrators of torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment against whom there’s sufficient evidence.”
In the three-page statement issued on June 20, 2020 ABODO said the office of the director of Public Prosecutions, Uganda, “Condemns the use of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment as interrogation strategies and calls on all security agencies including the Uganda Police Force (UPF), Internal Security Organization (ISO) [and] External Security Organisation (ESO) to explicitly ban the use of such treatment and enforce all laws and regulations prohibiting its use.”
She said torture and other forms of cruel and degrading treatment of suspects are a violation of the law and are “ineffective as a means of extracting reliable information.”
Interviewed for a comment then, Police spokesman Fred Enanga said the DPP’s warning was not new but, rather, an added voice to the force’s effort to fight all forms of torture.
“Our stand on torture is very clear. We are an institution that doesn’t condone torture in all forms and use of excessive force,” he said.
“Our officers know very well that use of excessive force and abuse of human rights attracts sanctions. The DPP’s warning is not new; rather, it’s an added voice to our efforts to stamp out torture. We are more than ready to have offenders arraigned before courts of law...”
He said police has used its human rights department to disseminate materials about the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act among officers and teach them to respect human rights. He said police is no longer associated with safe houses.
Before his death on November 20, 2019, Meddie Sozzi Kaggwa, then chairman of the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), used a June 18, 2019 press conference ahead of the International UN Day in Support of Victims of Torture, to nudge government to clear compensation for victims of torture amounting to Shs 5 billion.
Kaggwa asked the finance ministry to clear the outstanding compensation awards including awards to suspects in the killing of former Police Spokesperson AIGP Andrew Felix Kaweesi. They got Shs 200m following confirmation of their torture while in detention at the closed Nalufenya prison in Jinja.
The African Centre for Rehabilitation and Treatment of Torture Victims (ACTV), registers more than 1,000 cases of torture every year, according to the organization’s official, Samuel Nsubuga.
Last June in two separate judgments, judges made it clear that the old order of human rights abuses in the police force would no longer go unpunished. The judgments spotlighted one theme: errant officers will be required to personally incur the cost of compensation in the event of an award by court.
In the past, public officers, more-so security officers, tortured citizens and abused their rights with impunity, knowing that when push came to shove, it would be the taxpayers to pay for their sins. Not anymore.
But the Human Rights (Enforcement) Act 2019 bites police officers where it hurts most - their personal purse. Strangely, the inspector general of police, Martins Okoth Ochola, who in 2019 warned his officers against transgressing the law on human rights, was asked to pay for court costs after the judge ruled that he illegally stopped Bobi Wine’s Kyarenga concert.
In the case, Abbey Musinguzi T/A Abtex productions and Bajo Events and Marketing Agency Ltd v. The inspector general of police and attorney general, Justice Esta Nambayo found that the decision- making process and the decision itself of the inspector general of police taken on April 19, 2019, indefinitely stopping the event managers from organizing the ‘Kyarenga Extra Concerts’ at One Love Beach Busabaala, Lira, Gulu and Arua was illegal, ultra vires, irrational, unreasonable and an abuse of the police’s powers. And for that reason, the judge ordered the inspector general of police to pay the cost of application.
In July 2019, when the human rights law was enacted, Ochola wrote to all police units and warned them about the strict repercussions of violating human rights.
“Be informed that a new law, The Human Rights (Enforcement) Act 2019, is now in place. Going forward, the entrenchment of human rights in police work will never be an option...” Ochola wrote.
“The common human rights violations by police that have been documented over the years include, but not limited to, detention of suspects beyond 48 hours, torture, denial of a right to a fair hearing ...” Ochola illustrated.
“Important to note is that responsible officers will now be required to personally incur the cost of compensation in the event of an award by court...” the circular explained.
In a 2020 human rights violation case, Right Trumpets, Ampiire Aisha and Nansubuga v. AIGP Asan Kasingye and 13 others, the judge Margaret Mutonyi, held several police officers personally liable for torturing and violating the rights of inmates under police custody at Naggalama police station.
In the same year, a tortured Mityana municipality MP Francis Zaake petitioned the High Court over torture by security personnel. Through his lawyers of Kiiza & Mugisha Advocates, MP Zaake sought unspecified compensation from individual police and military officers and government.
The individually sued officers were Abel Kandiiho, the head of Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CIM), Alex Mwine, the Mityana district police commander; Elly Womanya, the commandant of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU); Twesigye Hamdani; Musa Walugembe, the officer in charge of SIU; and Haruna Mulungi Nsamba.
In his court documents, the 29-year- old legislator contended that on April 19, 2020 as he was taking a shower
at his upcountry home in Mityana district, a combined security detail of police and military, jumped over his wall fence and brutally arrested him.