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Following years of increasing oppression, today Uganda’s parliament has passed a law giving police more power while restricting its people’s rights.
Once it comes into force, the Public Order Management bill will give Ugandan police broad powers to permit or disallow any “public meeting.” Why is this a problem? Because the law defines a meeting as any gathering of more than three people in any public place where the “failure of any government, political party, or political organisation” is discussed. Organizers of such gatherings would be required to inform police in advance or face criminal sanction.
Any spontaneous peaceful demonstration of more than three people would be a crime.
President Yoweri Museveni, an outspoken supporter of the bill since inception, has 30 days to assent and, if so, it will be law.
This is Uganda’s latest restriction on space for expressing dissent and critiquing governance, which has been slowly eroded over the last few years. Civil society groups working on sensitive issues such as oil revenue transparency, land, governance, and human rights have increasingly faced a range of obstructions and threats to their work. Journalists working on politically sensitive topics have faced threats and media houses reporting on politically controversial subjects were closed down in 2009 and 2013.
In contravention of international law, Uganda’s new law allows police to use what appears to be disproportionate force – including, in several instances, firearms – no matter what the alleged offense. This is particularly troubling given Uganda’s recent history of security forces shooting and killing protestors and bystanders to demonstrations. In 2009, Human Rights Watch investigations and hospital records indicated that at least 40 people were killed by security forces over two days. In 2011, nine people were killed, including a two-year-old girl, during protests over rising food and fuel prices. No member of the police or military has faced criminal punishment for those killings, despite demands for investigations from civil society and victim’s families.