(Nairobi) – Police and prosecutors in Uganda have turned a blind eye to the killings of at least nine people by security forces during protests in April 2011. Human Rights Watch issued a video in which relatives of the victims explain the impact on their families and their struggle to secure justice and compensation.
The accounts from the families themselves should drive home to the government the urgent need to fulfill its obligation to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the deaths and hold security forces accountable. Two years on, the government has only made arrests in connection with one killing, and has not undertaken credible investigations into the others despite widespread calls for an inquiry in 2011. The official inaction underscores the need for an independent investigation.
“Despite commitments two years ago to investigate the 2011 killings, the victims have seen no more than a few days of hearings – only in the highly publicized death of a 2-year-old –and even that was over a year ago,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher. “The use of live ammunition by other security force members during the protests has not been investigated. The lives of everyone who was killed had value and their families deserve justice.”
Protests began in April 2011 after Activists for Change (A4C), a group that identifies itself as non-partisan and non-profit, called on the public to “foster peaceful change in the management of public affairs” by walking to work to protest escalating food and fuel prices. The government contended that the action constituted an unlawful assembly and vowed to stop it. Several opposition politicians, including two former presidential candidates, were arrested for walking and charged several times with unlawful assembly and inciting violence.
Security forces responded to the protests with brutality – killing, beating, and arbitrarily arresting protesters and bystanders. In some instances protesters turned aggressive, throwing stones and burning debris on the roads. Police acknowledged that well over 100 people were injured and over 600 were arrested countrywide during several days of protests.
Human Rights Watch investigated the abuses in 2011, interviewing more than 60 people – including victims and their relatives, witnesses, medical staff, civil society, police, military, and journalists. Human Rights Watch documented at least nine cases in which unarmed people had been killed by government forces – six in Kampala, two in Gulu, and one in Masaka. None of them were actively involved in rioting. Human Rights Watch did not find evidence that protesters had guns or other potential lethal means at their disposal. In at least three incidents that Human Rights Watch documented, security forces were hit by pelted rocks and injured.
At the police’s request, Human Rights Watch shared some of its investigations, including the name of a policeman widely believed to be responsible for one killing in the Namasuba area of Kampala, with police in July 2011. Police leadership accepted the accuracy of the names, dates, and locations of the deaths that Human Rights Watch provided. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any subsequent action to investigate the killings, however. No recent arrests have been made and relatives of the victims told Human Rights Watch that police have not been in contact since 2011.
“Publicly, government officials have often contended that those killed in April 2011 were anti-government and were inciting violence, but without credible investigations that argument sounds like a partisan cover-up for serious abuses by the police and military,” Burnett said.
Numerous witnesses corroborated accounts that security forces failed to distinguish between people actively participating in riots and bystanders. Witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that security forces responded to stone-throwing demonstrators by throwing teargas canisters directly at people or into houses or firing randomly into crowded areas.
For example on April 29, a uniformed military police officer wearing a red beret shot several rounds into the Owino Parkyard Market in Kampala. One shot hit Ssemuga Kanabi, a market vendor, in his chest as he tried to take cover. Kanabi died instantly.
In another incident in the Masajja area of Kampala, soldiers patrolling in armored personnel carriers randomly beat people they found by the roadside. Police and plain-clothes security officers were also deployed. Frank Kizito, a father of six, was shot while attempting to do errands for his family. At around 1 p.m. witnesses said Kizito fell to the ground as a police officer wearing a blue camouflage uniform fired in his direction. Police allegedly told mortuary staff that Kizito had been injured by rioters, a claim clearly contradicted by the witnesses. The official cause of death was confirmed as a gunshot wound.
Families of those killed have tried to push for justice and seek compensation, but their calls have gone unheeded. The April killings left families with the burden of school fees for upkeep of over a dozen children who, in most cases, lost their breadwinner.
The brother of one victim told Human Rights Watch: “We want justice but we lack the capacity to seek it and we do not know where to start anymore. Our interest is not only compensation from the government, there is no amount of money that equals the life that was taken away. [My brother] had his responsibilities, he had children to educate, he had wives to take care of, he was still a young man and he had a bright future ahead of him.”
At the time there was widespread criticism of the security forces’ actions. Members of civil society and the Uganda Human Rights Commission called on the authorities to respect the right to demonstrate and called for police restraint. The Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, comprising the leadership of Uganda’s Christian and Muslim communities, called for the resignation of the internal affairs minister and the police inspector general. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also urged a halt to actions by the police and the army that she said constituted disproportionate and excessive use of force.
One hundred and five Ugandan and international nongovernmental organizations and unions wrote to President Yoweri Museveni in June 2011 to urge the government to set up a transparent process promptly to investigate human rights abuses during the April protests and to hold accountable anyone found responsible for criminal acts, particularly incidents in which people were killed or wounded.
In contrast to the April 2011 killings, police took prompt law enforcement action when conflict between government and opposition leadership led to a police fatality. On March 21, 2012, a policeman, John Bosco Ariong, died from a head injury after a confrontation erupted between police and some opposition leadership in Kampala. Police immediately arrested scores of people. The government blamed A4C, a claim their leadership publicly denied. Ultimately one person was charged with murder for allegedly throwing a concrete block that killed Ariong. Fifteen others, including an opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye, were charged with unlawful assembly. The case is awaiting trial.
Shortly afterward the attorney general declared A4C an “unlawful society” under the penal code, making membership a criminal act. The group has changed its name and filed a petition before the Constitutional Court, challenging the attorney general’s declaration. The case has not yet been called for a hearing.
“Those responsible for Ariong’s death should be held accountable, but it should not be a pretext to outlaw legitimate political activity,” Burnett said. “The killings in April 2011 deserve equal scrutiny.”
Regulations governing the right of assembly and the use of lethal force have remained controversial in Uganda. In 2013 some government officials have renewed calls for passage of the Public Order Management Bill, which would grant overly broad discretionary power to the police to permit or disallow any “public meeting.” Any spontaneous peaceful demonstration of more than three people could be a criminal act. The president has repeatedly voiced strong support for the bill in its current form despite widespread criticism.
In a report to Parliament in 2012 the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee rightly pointed to the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the UN Basic Principles and recommended that the bill be revised to “prohibit the use of force and reserving its application as a last resort, where it is deemed, reasonable, appropriate and restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.”
The government of Uganda needs to conduct an independent, impartial investigation aided by international experts into the actions of soldiers and the police in April 2011. It should make a commitment to conduct criminal investigations of each incident within a specific time frame, prosecute those against whom there is sufficient evidence in accordance with international fair trial standards, and ensure fair compensation to victims.
Furthermore, the government should ensure that fundamental rights such as the rights to freedom of assembly and expression are fully protected and can be exercised without risk of censure. Any regulation or restrictions on the exercise of these rights should comply with international law, and be strictly necessary and proportionate.
Human Rights Watch urged donors to the Ugandan government to call on the government to respect Ugandans’ rights to assembly and expression and to urge officials to withdraw the Public Order Management Bill or to substantially revise it in line with international human rights law. Donors should offer international expertise to conduct credible, independent investigations into the April 2011 killings.
“Uganda’s donors have given the security forces a great deal of training and support in public order management, especially in the run-up to the 2011 elections,” Burnett said. “But bystanders and peaceful protestors still get killed in circumstances in which there was no need for live ammunition and the killers go unpunished. That needs to change.”