(Kampala) – Authorities have failed to investigate meaningfully the deaths three years ago of at least 40 people during two days of rioting in Uganda. Some families of victims told Human Rights Watch recently that they still hope for justice.
The government has made numerous promises to investigate the deaths during the so-called “Kayunga riots,” but a parliamentary committee mandated to examine the incident has stalled, failing to call any witnesses. No police or military members have been held accountable for the violence.
“The long government inaction on the killings of people in September 2009 is an insult to victims,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Resorting to lethal force without clear justification in the face of protests is unacceptable, yet it is becoming the norm in Uganda.”
On September 10 and 11, 2009, after the authorities had sought to prevent the cultural leader of the Buganda ethnic group from traveling to Kayunga, a town near Kampala, his supporters took to the streets. In some instances demonstrators threw stones and set debris, unoccupied vehicles, and an unoccupied police post alight.
In response military and police quickly used live ammunition. Unarmed protesters and bystanders died as the policeand military police used lethal force to try to frighten people off the streets. Human Rights Watch investigated 13 separate incidents and documented several in which security forces shot live ammunition through the closed doors of peoples’ homes, killing those inside.
Kinaalwa Sseddulaaka Jackson, the owner of a dry cleaning shop about 100 meters from the Masaka road in Tomusange zone, Ndeeba, hid in his back storage room and locked the back door on September 10 when an army armored personnel carrier entered Ndeeba and soldiers on board began shooting. A few minutes later a uniformed soldier walked through the area and fired his AK-47 through Sseddulaaka’s back door, killing him instantly. Human Rights Watch researchers saw two bullet holes in that door, as well as five other bullet holes in doors and walls in the neighborhood. All were in the lower half of the doors and walls.
In Busega, an area dense with open-air shops and stalls, soldiers shot and killed two people in separate incidents on September 11, 2009. Residents and officials reported that on the previous day rioters in the area had blocked roads with fires and demanded money from those trying to enter Kampala by car. Rioters had looted a Coca Cola truck and burned it. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the area remained calm until the next morning when a military armored personnel carrier and military and police trucks drove through, allegedly to tell people to clear the streets and return home. The shops closed quickly when soldiers began firing live bullets despite the absence of any rioting or demonstrating.
Thirteen-year-old Daoudi Ssentongowas struck in the head and killed inside his family’s shop when a bullet ripped through a refrigerator next door. His death triggered more demonstrations, and members of the community tried to block the personnel carrier from re-entering the area by burning debris in the road.
In the days after the unrest the police conducted brutal mass arrests of hundreds of young men, beating alleged riot suspects. Television stations broadcast film of the arrests and beatings. The government eventually charged 31 people with terrorism but dropped all charges earlier in 2012.
The government officially maintains that only 27 people lost their lives, largely as a result of “stray bullets” fired by security personnel deployed on armored personnel carriers. However, hospital records and investigations by human rights organizations put the death toll at over 40. The authorities have never seriously investigated the killings by the security forces during and after the unrest, despite numerous pledges to do so from government ministers and Uganda’s parliament.
Ssentongo’s mother told Human Rights Watch recently about her experience:
After the death of my son, police came and took notes. They made me write a statement going painfully through every moment of how the boy died. I did it thinking that something meaningful would happen. To date I have not seen justice. No one has come out to tell me why my child was shot dead. As we console ourselves for the loss of our 13-year-old I doubt if justice will ever come our way. They killed him and closed the chapter.
Another parent whose two sons, Ssadam Katongole and Hussein Kakooza, were killed by security forces during the riots told Human Rights Watch.
The death of sons left me with a lot of pain, my life has changed forever. I had so much hope in them. I have a permanent scar on my heart. I request those responsible in government to ensure that all those people who were involved in the killings are brought before courts and charged. This will be a lesson to other security officers and those who sent them.
Security forces who commit crimes, especially during political demonstrations, in practice have effective impunity in Uganda. In April 2011, protests over the rising costs of commodities were again met with violence from the security forces. In Kampala, Gulu, Mbale, and Masaka, police and military responded to protesters with live ammunition, leaving at least nine unarmed people dead.
Human Rights Watch investigated all nine incidents in April 2011, interviewing over 60 witnesses, medical staff, police, military, and journalists, and gathered forensic evidence, such as photographs of bullet holes, and medical and police records. The investigations indicated that the use of lethal force was unnecessary and unjustified in the nine cases.
The government arrested hundreds of protesters and put significant resources into investigating alleged acts of looting, arson, and destruction of property, but little effort into investigating the killings by security forces. One member of a local defense unit remains on trial for the shooting death of a 2-year-old girl shot in Masaka. The government never made a commitment to open an inquiry into the April 2011 violence, nor have the authorities started meaningful criminal investigations.
Instead of providing a secure environment in which Ugandans can exercise their rights to free assembly, speech, and association, as guaranteed by law, Ugandan security forces have repeatedly resorted to lethal force against protesters without clear justification. During all policing operations, Ugandan police should abide by the United Nations Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The principles call upon law enforcement officials to apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, to use force only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and to use lethal force only when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
The Ugandan government should invite independent international experts – like the African Union and United Nations special rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions – to participate in investigations. The government should also set out the concrete steps it will take to ensure that those responsible are held to account.
“In demonstrations Ugandan police and military seem to have resorted to a ‘shoot first’ policy,” Burnett said. “With government not willing to push for serious investigations and prosecutions of all perpetrators in these instances, the cycle of violence will only continue and victims will go without justice.”