The right to freedom against torture is preserved in many national and international human rights instruments and protects all citizens from deliberate severe psychological or physical distress by government security agents.
The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda offers the mandate to every citizen to exercise his or her right in respect of others. Torture is prohibited under the International Law (1948), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (1981) prohibit acts of arbitrary detention.
While the Ugandan law protects the right to freedom from torture i.e., Article 24 of the Constitution stipulates that No person shall be subjected to any form of torture, cruelty, inhuman, degrading treatment or closed-door punishments, the law prohibits acts of unlawful arrest, torture, and illegal detention of suspected criminals.
Excessive torture started way back in 2002 with the unpopular ‘Operations Wembley’ which involved extrajudicial killings, excessive torture, illegal detention, forced confessions of criminal suspects among others.
It was disbanded and replaced with the Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU) which was replaced with Rapid Response Unit (RRU) a security body to handle criminal investigations (UNHCR, 2003).
The Anti-Torture Act (Sect.3) stipulates that if any person is convicted of an act of torture, is liable to be sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, a fine of sixty currency points or both. In addition, the penalty for conviction of aggravated torture is life imprisonment.
In 2017, the former IGP Andrew Felix Kaweesi together with his bodyguard Kenneth Erau and driver Godfrey Wambewo were gunned down by an unknown criminal gang. Security investigations identified 22 people who were suspected to have a hand in the killing of Kaweesi.
These were subjected to excessive torture by police operatives during their arrest and while in detention centers. These suspects included Abdul Rashid Mbaziira who was arrested and taken to Jinja Road police station. His wives were brutally arrested including their children at Naggalama police station where they were tortured and forced to confess to criminal charges.
Many families of the suspected criminals suffered due to the arrest of their loved ones as they could not afford school fees for their children, food and some were evicted due to unpaid rental fees.
Several people were arrested over the murder of Maj Kiggundu who was shot dead along with his bodyguard Sgt Steven Mukasa by unknown men on motorcycles at Masanafu - a Kampala suburb near the Northern bypass on Saturday, November 26, 2016.
Suspects identified included Bashir Nyangisho, Asuman Musijjo, Sulait Lukwago Majid, Abdulaziz Abdushakur Musoke, Sulaiman Wayaba, Alqaeda Abasi Fikil Yusuf, Abubaker Katende, Lukia Namulondo, Malik Ssenabulya, Yasin Kaggwa Galiwango and Usama Mugozi.
These were tortured while in the different detention centers as police tried to forcefully obtain information about the whereabouts of firearms which they used during the killings. However, after being subjected to all sorts of unlawful torture in February 2021, the International Crimes Division of the High court’s deputy registrar Stella Beatrice Atingu said that court was then left with one option, to release the suspects.
This was after the state prosecutors lost interest in the case due to failure to present evidence. In a similar instance, the joint security team has recently arrested and tortured at least 5 people suspected to be behind the murder of Brenda Nantongo a daughter of Gen Katumba Wamala.
Gen Katumba survived the assassination while his driver Haruna Kayondo was gunned down on June 1, 2021. The then deputy IGP, the late Maj Gen Paul Lokech revealed that the identified suspects in detention included Muhammad Kagugube alias Bafumoya, Kisambira Siriman alias Mukwasi, Walusimbi Kamada alias Mudinka, and Mustafa Kawawa Ramadan alias Amin. These were tortured during arrest and in the process, one of the alleged ring leaders Lutwama Hussein alias Master was killed by security officers.
On August 13, 2018, the Special Forces Command (SFC) arrested MPs Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and Francis Zaake among others. On August 15, 2018, local media houses published images of Zaake taken to a health facility in Arua during campaigns where he had been arrested.
The images showed wounds and deep cuts on Zaake’s legs, hands and ears which was a manifestation of torture including swelling of his face and bruises. All these are reported to have been experienced while in military detention. When this went viral, the military dumped Zaake in a very sorry state at Rubaga hospital in Kampala where he received further medical attention.
Besides Zaake, Kyagulanyi was allegedly tortured while in detention. On August 16, 2019, when the UPDF brought him in a military court, his lawyers reported that Kyagulanyi had swellings and bruises on his face and was seen walking with difficulty or even stand on his own.
During the 2020 general elections campaigns, supporters of Kyagulanyi a presidential candidate during were brutally arrested while at Kalangala district and later transferred to Masaka Prison where they were detained for more than 48 hours without trial.
In July 2020, the African Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims had registered 63 allegations of torture championed by the Uganda Police Force, 7 committed by the Flying Squad Unit and 12 by the Uganda People’s Defense Force.
Almost all the detainees experienced acts of violence during their arrest. They were subjected to various sorts of torture such as punched, kicked, hit with guns during arrest and in detention centers. Such atrocities were committed while trying to extract more information from the suspects about specific cases.
The torture and beatings happened during transportation between locations at RRU headquarters in Kireka and in other unknown detention centers. The beatings were largely on the knees, shoulders, ankles. The tortured victims reportedly had difficulty in walking or lifting heavy objects, and this took quite some time. The torture did not leave out female detainees.
A woman detained in Kireka for five months without charge informed Human Rights Watch (2010) that she witnessed eight women being tortured by RRU agents, who also forced needles under her fingernails during interrogations.
She showed Human Rights Watch multiple black pin-like scars on her fingertips.
“I cannot recall the number of times they pierced my nails …. My nails were destroyed. They were black, swollen, and painful. The needles were inserted under the nail, on both my hands and feet. They pierced every nail,” one of the suspects said.
In 2016, Nalufenya in Jinja was one of the notorious torture centers for suspects especially politicians and activists. The prevailing conditions in prisons have remained poor and a menace to human life like those in detention centers.
These are characterized by overcrowding, excessive torture, physical abuse of detainees by the security staff and fellow inmates worsened by malnutrition. Most prisons did not put into consideration the accommodations for mainly Persons with Disabilities.
The Uganda Prisons Service (UPS) reported, it held 49,322 inmates yet the prisons were designed to cater for 22,000 inmates (US Mission on the World Human Rights Day in 2018). The Uganda Human Rights Commission during its visit in Arua Prison, found 840 inmates instead of the 250 capacity that was planned (Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2018).
Kamwenge police station particularly men’s cell was found housing 30 detainees instead of eight. Delays in the judicial process and the limited number of magistrates have caused excessive overcrowding in police cells and prisons. The Uganda Prisons Service laments that overcrowding has increased the spread of diseases mostly communicable diseases such as the resistant tuberculosis.
There is absence of specialized police cells according to the UHRC. Juveniles aged between 11 and 14 years are housed alongside adult detainees in police stations including men and women (United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour).
Arrest and detention of suspected criminals
The law requires prosecutors to issue a warrant of arrest before an arrest is made unless it is made during commission of a crime or while in pursuit of a perpetrator. Nevertheless, authorities often arrest suspects without warrants.
The law requires authorities to present suspects before court within 48 hours of arrest. However, this is not the practice as authorities often hold suspects longer hours without trial. In 2017 the FHRI reported that 20% of prisoners in Uganda had spent at least three years in pretrial detention. As we talk now, there is a controversial debate to scrap off bail in Uganda. Is this objective or subjective?
We thus recommend that:
- Arrests are undertaken within the law
- Government increases the number magistrates to ensure timely court hearing to reduce the number of detainees in prisons. Each district should have at least a maximum of 4 Magistrate courts especially in urban and semi-urban areas to reduce case backlogs.
- Authorities that arrest of suspects have a professional touch.
- Citizens are sensitized about their constitutional right to bail or bond.
- Conditions in detention centers should be improved to allow inmates live a healthy life especially the quality of accommodation facilities, medical care, and nutrition.
- Prisons should house the designed capacity of detainees.
- Bail charges should have maximum limits. Courts of law should set realistic fees depending on the magnitude of the case.
- There is need to bring all suspects arrested to administratively known places.
- Authorities should desist from coercive confessions, especially to those suspects under torture. This will reduce reliance on false evidence that increases the possibility of unrealistic court verdicts and unfair hearing.
- Redefine the role of the Uganda’s army and Police
Conclusively, torture, extra judicial killings and illegal detention have become a widespread human rights violation challenge in Uganda. Many criminal suspects suffer from physical injuries and psychological defects associated with torture.
In the absence of effective access to justice, citizens have recently resorted to some level of violence, mob justice and illicit behaviour. The judicial system and security forces of Uganda require urgent retooling in human rights, rule of law and redefinition of roles between Police and Uganda People’s Defense Forces.
Kiberu Jonah & Vicent Kibira are researchers at Gateway Research Centre Uganda