April 8, 2009

IV. Background

The Use of "Safehouses" in Uganda

The 1995 Ugandan constitution explicitly prohibits holding individuals in unacknowledged or "ungazetted" places of detention, i.e. those not published in the official gazette. [1] Police stations are gazetted facilities. UPDF barracks, JATT and CMI offices and residential homes are not gazetted. Illegal or irregular places of detention-in Uganda often referred to as "safehouses"-are frequently cited by victims as the location where torture is meted out by state agents.

In 2002, the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs said the Minister of State Security Muruli Mukasa had reported that in 1997 and 1998 safehouses had been used "due to the widespread wave of terrorism" but that they had been phased out when personnel were trained to manage terrorism cases.[2] When questioned about this in parliament, State Minister Mukasa said that, "safe houses, as places of detention, no longer exist, but safe houses as places of work for the security agencies do exist.These houses or premises, which have been mentioned, CMI on Kitante Road . . . are not safe houses. Those are places of work. They are offices run by the various security organisations and they are known." He denied that individuals are detained in those "places of work."[3] In response, some parliamentarians said that they believed safehouses were still in use.[4]

In 2005, Defense Minister Amama Mbabazi echoed the statement of Mukasa. He told Human Rights Watch that although safehouses were used by agencies for intelligence work and that suspects may be interrogated there, they were not used as places of detention-detainees were transferred to the regular prisons after arrest. [5]

In May 2005, Ugandan officials responded to concerns from the UN Committee against Torture after Uganda submitted a state party report, as required under the Convention against Torture.[6] At that time, Capt. John Sonko, head of the UPDF's human rights desk, admitted that safehouses had been used to combat terror until 2000: "[I]t had not been possible to place the perpetrators in the same cells as ordinary offenders; the security agencies had designated places known as safehouses where they could be held in isolation with provision for additional security measures."[7]

However, incidents revealing the ongoing use of safehouses continued to be reported in the media. In March 2006, the Daily Monitor newspaper reported that Ronald Kasekende, a Makerere University student, had been detained since the previous October in various illegal locations, including a safehouse on Mutongo Hill. [8] He was eventually transferred to the JATT compound, and later jumped over the perimeter wall while attempting to escape. Kasekende-who had allegedly been tortured for several months-landed in the next door residential compound of the Danish ambassador. According to the Daily Monitor, soldiers pursued Kasekende and removed him by force from the ambassador's garden. [9] In September 2006, parliamentarian Beti Kamya Turwomwe said that she had intervened in the case of Paul Kalemba who had been arrested by JATT in July and could not be located. She said she had contacted then Minister of Internal Affairs Ruhakana Rugunda, after which "it was discovered that Paul had been taken by JATT, and held in a "safe house." [10]

According to a 2006 report by a Ugandan human rights organization, Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), public criticism of safehouses had some impact on reducing the number of suspects held in ungazetted locations. [11] The report noted that despite the reduction, safehouses were "still in use and suspects alleged that they were arrested usually in the night by plain clothed armed men, who confiscated their property and personal effects and took them to a safehouse, tortured them and forced them to sign confessions." [12]

Structure of Security Organizations in Uganda

Under the constitution, the police are mandated to preserve law and order and to prevent and detect crime, but in reality, law enforcement in Uganda is also carried out by agencies and taskforces with varied and conflicting command hierarchies and very limited effective civilian oversight. In the past decade, there has been a proliferation of ad hoc security organizations working within the law enforcement and intelligence communities without mandates codified in law, some comprised of multiple organs of the state.

One of these groups is the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force (JATT ), but others include the Popular Intelligence Network (PIN), the Kalangala Action Plan (KAP), the Black Mambas, Operation Wembley, and its successor, the Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU), and its subsequent successor the Rapid Response Unit (RRU). These groups have all been accused at various times of human rights abuses. Some, such as PIN–a loose network of civilians collaborating with the military to unearth collaborators of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in 1996 [13] –and KAP, an armed group launched by President Museveni in the run-up to the elections of 2001 [14] –were relatively very short-lived. KAP drew its membership from loyalists of President Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM) and was described by the president as a "political action group for disturbed areas." [15]

Operation Wembley, a joint operation of the police, Internal Security Organization (ISO) and military intelligence and other unofficial volunteers, operated for several months. It was established in 2002 to fight violent crime in urban areas and a spate of killings in the business community . [16] Though it was reported that crime levels decreased, the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) noted that " methods of arrest and illegal detention were a point of concern, as well as the shoot-to-kill policy, which put lives at risk and disregarded the presumption of innocence of suspects." [17] Operation Wembley eventually turned into VCCU, and then the RRU, which is still in operation. Both the VCCU and the RRU have frequently been accused of abuses by human rights groups and the Uganda Human Rights Commission. [18] In November 2005 and March 2007, the Black Mamba Hit Squad, which according to experts is part of military intelligence, [19] surrounded the High Court to prevent the court-ordered release of presidential hopeful Kizza Besigye. [20]

Contrary to the constitution, these ad hoc groups were not founded by acts of parliament, though the units have frequently carried out intelligence work as well as arrests and detention in excess of the constitutional time limits, and are reported to have mistreated and tortured suspects. The UN Committee Against Torture noted with concern "the wide array of security forces and agencies in Uganda," and in 2005 recommended that the government "[m]inimize the number of security forces and agencies with the power to arrest, detain and investigate and ensure that the police remains the primary law enforcement agency." [21]

Analysts who spoke to Human Rights Watch voiced concern about the integrity of the police as the primary law enforcement organ and its independence from the military in the face of the proliferation of joint ad hoc security and intelligence groups. [22] One observer called the current situation the "the hijacking of the police" by the army. [23] These joint ad hoc units comprised of police, military, intelligence personnel, and sometimes other unofficial forces established to address particular security challenges, blur the boundaries between the codified mandates and roles of the military and civilian law enforcement. [24] These groups also illustrate, according to one in-depth study, a tendency in Uganda of bypassing statutory actors and processes when addressing security problems. [25] Not only are these groups unconstitutional, but reporting lines may be confused by having members of the police report to the military and vice-versa. In that situation, accountability for abuses may be less likely, given the lack of clear hierarchy and oversight roles. State power is then centralized in the hands of a few individuals, mostly high-ranking members of the military.

[1] Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, 1995, art. 23(2) states: "A person arrested, restricted or detained shall be kept in a place authorised by law." The minister of internal affairs must publish in the Ugandan gazette the location of detention places.

[2] The Daily Hansard of the Parliament of Uganda, December 10, 2002, "Motion for the presentation, consideration and adoption of the report on the committee on legal and parliamentary affairs, on the Uganda human rights commission annual report for the year 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001, submitted in accordance with article 52(2) of the Constitution." http://www.parliament.go.ug/hansard/hans_view_date.jsp?dateYYYY=2002&dateMM=12&dateDD=10.

[3] The Daily Hansard of the Parliament of Uganda, December 11, 2002, http://www.parliament.go.ug/hansard/hans_view_date.jsp?dateDD=11&dateMM=12&dateYYYY=2002.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Human Rights Watch meeting with Amama Mbabazi, Minister of Defence, Sam Kutesa, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Moses Byaruhanga, Secretary of the President. London, April 14, 2005.

[7]Committee against Torture CAT/C/SR.654/Add.1, 23 May 2005, para 10.

[8] Andrew Mwenda, "Makerere student tortured over spying for Rwanda," The Daily Monitor, March 30, 2006

[9]Ibid. Kasekende was eventually released by the General Courts Martial in November 2007. 

[10] Beti Kamya Turwomwe, "Ugandans Almost Fed Up With Abuse," The Daily Monitor, September 25, 2006.

[11]See Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, Deprivation of the Right to Life, Liberty and Security of Person in Uganda, Report for the Period January to June 2006, p. 6.


[13] Sabiiti Mutengesa and Dylan Hendrickson, State Responsiveness to Public Security Needs: The Politics of Security Decision-Making, Uganda Country Study, No. 16, June 2008.

[14] "Museveni 'Leader' of Kalangala Action Plan," The DailyMonitor, March 7, 2002. See also Sabiiti Mutengesa and Dylan Hendrickson, State Responsiveness to Public Security Needs: The Politics of Security Decision-Making, Uganda Country Study, No. 16, June 2008.

[15]The New Vision, "Mutale Blasts Tumukunde," May 15, 2002.

[16] For more about abuses committed by forces during Operation Wembley, see Human Rights Watch, State of Pain – Torture in Uganda, p. 50.

[17]Uganda Human Rights Commission, Freedom from Torture: The End of Operation Wembley and the rise of the Violent Crime Crack Unit, 2003, http://www.uhrc.ug/uploads/Chapter_9.pdf, Chapter 9.

[18]Ibid. and Amnesty International, "Urgent need to end torture following death in custody," June 27, 2003 and "African detainees tortured during incommunicado detention," September 17, 2007.

[19]See Sabiiti Mutengesa and Dylan Hendrickson, State Responsiveness to Public Security Needs: The Politics of Security Decision-Making, Uganda Country Study, No. 16, June 2008, p. 57.

[20] See Human Rights Watch, "Uganda: Government Gunmen Storm High Court Again, Security Forces Used to Intimidate Judiciary in Case of 'PRA Suspects,'" March 4, 2007. http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2007/03/04/uganda-government-gunmen-storm-high-court-again.

[21]Conclusions and recommendations of the Committee against Torture: Uganda; "Consideration of Reports submitted by State parties under Article 19 of the Convention", Art. 10 (h), June 21, 2005. CAT/C/CR/34/UGA, http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/CAT.C.CR.34.UGA.En?Opendocument.

[22]Omar Kalinge Nnyago, "What Befell Professionalism in the Police Force?," The Daily Monitor, June 18, 2008; Human Rights Watch interview with Ugandan government official, Kampala, August 10, 2008.

[23]Human Rights Watch interview with MP, Kampala, August 11, 2008.

[24]Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, The Police, the People and The Politics: Police Accountability in Uganda, 2006, p. 7, noting "The frequent joint operations that take place between the police and the army further muddy the legal waters relating to detention." http://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/publications/police/uganda_country_report_2006.pdf.

[25] See Sabiiti Mutengesa and Dylan Hendrickson, State Responsiveness to Public Security Needs: The Politics of Security Decision-Making, Uganda Country Study, No. 16, June 2008, p. 67.