(Nairobi) – The government of Uganda has failed to investigate adequately the use of lethal force by security forces that resulted in the deaths of at least nine people during protests over corruption and rising commodity prices in April 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. A year after the nine were killed, no member of the security forces has been held accountable and only one has been arrested.
The failure to investigate all of these deaths and prosecute members of the security forces who used unnecessary lethal force during the April 2011 protests, as well as new threats in recent weeks on the right of free speech and assembly, set the stage for future abuses and contribute to escalating tensions, Human Rights Watch said.
“Members of the Ugandan military and police commit serious crimes with impunity, particularly during politically charged demonstrations,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ugandan law guarantees the right to free assembly, speech, and association, but security forces disregarded these basic freedoms and respondedwith live ammunition.”
A wave of protests began in April 2011 after Activists for Change (A4C), a non-partisan group, called on the public to “foster peaceful change in the management of public affairs.” The first action was “Walk to Work” protests twice a week to protest escalating food and fuel costs and government financial mismanagement. The government contended that the protests constituted unlawful assembly and said it intended to stop them.
Based on multiple accounts from witnesses, Human Rights Watch documented the killings of at least nine unarmed people over several days by government forces – six in Kampala, two in Gulu, and one in Masaka. None of the nine were actively involved in rioting and some were not involved in the protests. Security forces also beat or shot at more than 30 journalists, confiscated audio recorders and cameras, and deleted images of the violence. Several opposition politicians, including two former presidential candidates, were violently arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and inciting violence. All charges were eventually dropped.
Human Rights Watch investigated the fatal and non-fatal shootings by the security forces, as well as allegations of abuses such as beatings, theft, and rape, that occurred on three of the most violent days of the demonstrations, April 14, 21, and 29. Researchers interviewed more than 60 people, including victims and their relatives, witnesses, community members, medical staff, members of civil society, police, members of the military, and journalists in Gulu and Kampala. Human Rights Watch also gathered forensic evidence, such as photographs of bullet holes, post-mortem reports, and police records.
In some instances protesters began throwing stones and burning debris, but Human Rights Watch found that security personnel did not distinguish between people who actively participated in violence and those who did not, and instead fired randomly into crowded areas and launched teargas at people or into houses.
The two Gulu killings were particularly deplorable because both occurred far from the protest and the victims were shot in the back, Human Rights Watch said. The military carried out a preliminary investigation and determined that soldiers were responsible but did not identify which individual members of the military had shot the two people.
Police arrested a military reserve force member for the fatal shooting of a 2-year-old girl in Masaka. He is on trial before the military courts in Kampala.
Families of the victims have pressed for justice and reparations, but, despite multiple police commitments to investigate the other eight deaths of unarmed civilians, no action has been taken.
Following the violence in June 2011, a coalition of 105 human rights, media, and development organizations from around the world called on President Yoweri Museveni to ensure independent and transparent investigations into the killings and hold security forces accountable. The groups also urged the government to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions to investigate. No invitation has been extended, however.
In mid-October 2011 at least 27 members of Activists for Change were arrested and charged with incitement to violence, concealment of treason, or treason as the group planned more protests to highlight corruption and inflation. An opposition leader and former presidential candidate, Kizza Besigye, was arrested several times during 2011 while walking to work and held in “preventative detention” at his home.
Tension between the government and the opposition has further escalated since March 21, 2012, when a policeman died from a head injury after a melee erupted between police and some opposition leaders in Kampala. The government blamed Activists for Change for the death and arrested scores of people, including leaders of the group. On April 4, Attorney General Peter Nyombi banned the group, declaring it an unlawful society “dangerous to the peace and order in Uganda” under section 56 of the Penal Code.
Recently several women activists have also been arrested and beaten. Ingrid Turinawe, leader of the Women’s League of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was arrested on April 20 as she tried to drive to an opposition rally outside Kampala. Turinawe was assaulted as she was hauled from her vehicle, and her breast was grabbed several times by a police officer. She was eventually arrested on charges of unspecified traffic offenses and released. The televised and widely publicized incident sparked outrage, and on April 23 women’s rights activists held a protest at police headquarters. Six were arrested after stripping down to their bras and refusing to leave the station. Police leaderssaid the women were arrested because they did not have permission for their protest and were exposing themselves in public. The women were later released.
In September 2009, at least 40 people were killed by security forces during two days of protests. Human Rights Watch documented numerous instances in which unarmed protesters and bystanders died as a result of the police and military police using live ammunition to scare people off the streets or shooting inside people’s homes. Despite numerous commitments to investigate those events from government ministers and Uganda’s parliament, no one has been held accountable for those killings, and the police and soldiers responsible have never been punished.
“Ugandan officials should ensure that the right to assemble is protected without protesters fearing lethal force,” Burnett said. “Police need to show leadership by professionally managing demonstrations, exercising restraint, and investigating criminal acts by all sides – including the security forces themselves.”