(New York) - The Ugandan government should urgently charge or release five detainees held by military intelligence, one of them for 16 months, Human Rights Watch said today. Lawyers for the detainees' families and friends filed petitions for habeas corpus with the High Court in Kampala on July 17, 2009 seeking to compel the government to justify the legal basis for continuing detention.
The five detainees - four men and one woman - were arrested on various dates in 2008 by agents of the Joint Anti-terrorism Task Force (JATT), a unit that draws its members from the military, police, and intelligence organizations and reports to the chief of military intelligence (CMI). In violation of the Ugandan Constitution, the five have been held without access to a lawyer or family and have never been before a magistrate or charged with any crime throughout their prolonged detention. The government's refusal to reveal the physical whereabouts of the detainees makes these cases of enforced disappearance under international law, Human Rights Watch said.
"If the government thinks that any of these people committed a crime, it should bring charges," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But holding them indefinitely and secretly this way violates both Uganda's own laws and its international obligations."
A number of former detainees who spoke with Human Rights Watch and who saw some or all of the five in detention said that all five have been held most of the time at the task force headquarters in Kololo, a wealthy suburb of Kampala. They also said that some were tortured during interrogation and as a result may be in ill health.
On July 17, Human Rights Watch released an audio recording of two former detainees who had been tortured by the task force and military intelligence. These new accounts amplify a Human Rights Watch report released in April, "Open Secret: Illegal Detention and Torture by the Joint Anti-terrorism Task Force in Uganda," which detailed multiple abuses by the task force, including killings, enforced disappearances, forced confessions and torture of alleged terrorism and treason suspects.
As part of the research for that report, Human Rights Watch exchanged letters with the chief of military intelligence in November 2008 regarding the whereabouts of 16 people, including four of the five whose families now seek habeas corpus relief.
In a written response to Human Rights Watch dated November 3, 2008, the chief of military intelligence confirmed that Abdulrahman Kijjambu and Ismail Kambaale, two of the five, were arrested in July 2008, allegedly for planning "terrorist acts," and that Abdul Hamid Lugemwa, a third, was arrested in March 2008 for alleged involvement in an "urban hit squad." Military intelligence said all three were being held pending prosecution, but to date no charges have been filed in any of these cases.
Military intelligence asserted no knowledge of the whereabouts of the fourth detainee, Mohamed Sekulima. However, four people told Human Rights Watch separately that they saw Sekulima in the task force's custody in Kololo several times in 2008. It is unclear if the fifth person, Fatuma Nantongo, was in custody at that time, although there are unconfirmed reports that she was arrested by men in civilian clothes known to work for the task force in December 2008. People interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they saw her in custody in January 2009. Military Intelligence provided no information on the physical whereabouts of any of the five detainees, violating international legal prohibitions on enforced disappearances.
In the months following the November 3 letter, 11 detainees who had been identified by Human Rights Watch as being unlawfully detained were released without charge, granted amnesty, or charged with a criminal offense. To date, none of those charged has had a trial.
One detainee identified by Human Rights Watch died while in custody of the task force. Although military intelligence asserted in its letter that it had no knowledge of the whereabouts of Saidi Lutaaya, Human Rights Watch is in possession of a copy of Lutaaya's death certificate, which states that he died in a "comatose state." The certificate presents no cause of death.
A number of people who saw him either in the task-force detention site or in the casualty ward of Mulago Hospital in Kampala told Human Rights Watch that he had been severely beaten by task force and military intelligence agents, who allegedly hit him on the head with a hammer during an interrogation. His family has never received his body nor had any official acknowledgement of his arrest or detention.
In response to allegations of abuse made by Human Rights Watch in April, the spokesman for the Ugandan military denied that the military routinely tortures suspects. The minister of defense, the chief of military intelligence, and members of the Parliamentary Committee on Defense and Internal Affairs made commitments then to investigate the allegations, and said that those found responsible for abuses would be held to account. However, the Ministry of Defense has not responded to multiple queries from Human Rights Watch about the substance and progress of any investigations or the whereabouts of the persons involved.
Under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, an enforced disappearance occurs when a person is deprived of his or her liberty, whether under arrest, detention, or otherwise, by state authorities, and the detention is followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of the detained person. The practice of "disappearances" violates basic human rights, including the right to life, the right to liberty and security of the person, the right to a fair and public trial, as well as the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment.
The right to habeas corpus, provided under article 23(9) of the Ugandan Constitution, is a fundamental protection for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary detention. A writ of habeas corpus issued by a judge or other judicial officer normally requires the authorities to produce the person in court and explain the legal basis for the detention.
"Ugandan military and civilian authorities need to stop ‘disappearances' immediately," said Gagnon. "Family members should not have to resort to legal action to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones."
Summary of the ‘disappeared' people
- Abdulrahman Kijjambu, from Nakawa, Kampala. According to CMI, Kijjambu was arrested on July 12, 2008 and is affiliated with the rebel Allied Democratic Forces. Kijjambu was allegedly planning "terrorist acts" around February 2008. People who saw Kijjambu in custody say that he has been tortured during interrogations.
- Ismail Kambaale, from Nakawa, Kampala. According to CMI, Kambaale was arrested July 13, 2008 and was in a group with Kijjambu.
- Abdul Hamid Lugemwa (sometimes spelled Mugera), from Rakai district. According to CMI, Lugemwa was arrested in March 2008 for alleged involvement in an "urban hit squad." People who saw Lugemwa in custody say that he has been tortured during interrogations.
- Mohamed Sekulima, alias Bidomola, from Bwaise, Kampala. CMI said they had no knowledge of his whereabouts. According to witnesses, Sekulima spent time in detention in Kisaasi, and was then brought to the task force in Kololo around May 8, 2008. He was briefly brought to the Jinja Road police station in Kampala in April 2009, but his current whereabouts are unknown.
- Fatuma Nantongo, from Kalerwe, Kampala. According to witnesses, she was arrested in late December 2008. She was briefly brought to Jinja Road police station in Kampala in April 2009, but her current whereabouts are unknown.