Penal Code Invoked to Criminalize Membership and Activities
(Nairobi) – The Ugandan government’s declaration on April 4, 2012, that an activist group that has led protests against the government is an “unlawful society” is deeply troubling, Human Rights Watch said today. The action against Activists for Change (A4C) was taken ahead of a planned demonstration on April 5.
On March 21, a policeman, John Bosco Ariong, died from a head injury after a melee erupted between police and some opposition leadership in Kampala. The government has since blamed A4C for the death and arrested scores of people.
“The death of Officer Ariong should be investigated to get to the truth of what happened, not as a pretext to criminalize legitimate political activity,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to respect the right to free assembly, speech, and association.”
Investigations continue into the circumstances of Ariong’s death. However, there is currently no evidence that Ariong was targeted because of his membership in the police force. According to witnesses, he was not in uniform.
The ban was issued by Uganda’s attorney general, Peter Nyombi, who declared A4C an unlawful society “dangerous to the peace and order in Uganda” under section 56 of Uganda’s Penal Code.
Activists for Change, a nonprofit group, was begun in April 2011 in Kampala by democracy and human rights activists from various political and civil society groups, seeking to address the deepening economic crisis and to protest escalating food and fuel costs. As stated on the group’s website, A4C’s mission is to “foster peaceful change, in the management of public affairs of Uganda using nonviolent action to compel leaders at all levels to exercise sensitivity and compassion in the allocation of scarce and hard-earned resources.”
A4C called for people to walk to work in 2011 as a form of protest, but the government contended that these walks constituted an unlawful assembly and responded by deploying security forces to disperse protesters. In some instances protesters were aggressive, throwing stones and setting debris alight. However, Human Rights Watch found that security personnel did not distinguish between individuals who actively participated in violence and those who did not, instead firing randomly into crowded areasand throwing tear gas at people or into houses.
During April 2011, at least nine people were shot and killed by police and military seeking to quell demonstrations. Security forces beat or shot over 30 journalists, confiscated audio recorders and cameras, and deleted images documenting the violence. Several opposition politicians, including two former presidential candidates, were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and inciting violence. The charges were ultimately dropped. In mid-October, at least 27 members of A4C were arrested and charged with incitement to violence, concealment of treason, or treason as the group planned more protests to highlight corruption and inflation.
Section 56 (2) (3) in Uganda’s penal code, which allows any combination of two or more people to be labeled an unlawful society upon the declaration of the attorney general that it is dangerous to peace and order in Uganda, is incompatible with respect for fundamental rights of assembly, speech and association, and should be repealed, Human Rights Watch said. The penal code makes no provision for judicial review or any form of appeal against a declaration of the attorney general made under the section. The penal code also sets out potentially severe sanctions for offenses related to an unlawful society, including up to seven years imprisonment for any person who manages or assists in the management of an “unlawful society.”