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(Kampala) – The government of Uganda has failed to hold to account senior officials implicated in the theft and diversion of public funds, Human Rights Watch and Yale Law School’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic said in a joint report released today. No high-ranking government official, minister, or political appointee has ever served a prison sentence despite investigations into numerous corruption scandals over many years and an impressive array of anti-corruption institutions. Activists fighting corruption face arrest and criminal charges.

The 63-page report, “Letting the Big Fish Swim: Failure to Prosecute High-Level Corruption in Uganda,” documents Uganda’s failure to hold the highest members of its government accountable for large scale graft, despite repeated pledges to eradicate corruption and good technical work from investigators and prosecutors. The groups analyzed officials’ use of legal loopholes and laws that insulate political appointees from accountability to elude punishment. A lack of political will has crippled Uganda’s anti-corruption institutions, undermining their efforts through political interference, harassment, and threats.

“Scandal after scandal, the government’s patronage politics and lack of political will undermine the fight against corruption in Uganda,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher. “Throughout President Yoweri Museveni’s 27 years in office his promises to tackle corruption have proliferated while officials responsible for graft at the highest levels go free.”

The report is based on research by Human Rights Watch and Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic from May to September 2013, including interviews with 48 people with substantive knowledge of anti-corruption efforts in Uganda. The researchers also consulted numerous reports from local activists, Uganda’s development partners, and the World Bank to reflect the history of Uganda’s entrenched corruption problem.

Corruption scandals have had a direct impact on human rights in Uganda over many years. Donor funding worth US$12.7 million was stolen from the Office of the Prime Minister in late 2012. The money was earmarked for rebuilding northern Uganda, a region ravaged by a 20-year war, and Karamoja, Uganda’s poorest region.

Other scandals have rocked health programs, like the US$4.5 million diverted from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria in 2005, and the US$800,000 stolen from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations in 2006. The theft of resources intended to help realize fundamental rights to justice, health, water, food, and education can have disastrous consequences.

Given Uganda’s political patronage system and the duration of Museveni’s stay in power, prosecution of high-level government officials responsible for corruption is necessary to fundamentally alter the deeply rooted patterns of graft among certain elites.

“This court is tired of trying tilapias when crocodiles are left swimming,” Justice John Bosco Katutsi, former head of the Anti-Corruption Court, said in a 2010 ruling.

Uganda has a variety of government bodies focused on eradicating corruption, which have ably prosecuted low-level corruption for small amounts of money. But these bodies have been largely ineffective in curbing grand scale corruption.

These bodies have not had the support or resources they need from Museveni, his cabinet, and parliament to get the job done. Important positions have been left vacant, for years in some cases. Critical institutions, like the Leadership Tribunal, which could challenge inaccurate financial asset declarations of officials, have not been established.

Further legislative reform is likely needed to ensure that routine personnel vacancies don’t cripple anti-corruption institutions, such as the Inspectorate of Government.

Political interference in the work of anti-corruption institutions has also derailed high-level prosecutions. The organizations found that in some cases senior officials have directed prosecutors to delay prosecution or prematurely try a case with weak evidence. Investigators, prosecutors, and witnesses involved in such cases have been the targets of threats and bribes. The Ugandan government should provide greater protection for those involved in prosecutions and a more robust system for protecting witnesses and ensuring that quality evidence against high-ranking members of government comes to light.

“Instead of being brought to justice, people accused of stealing millions and millions of dollars in Uganda are often just shifted to other government positions,” Burnett said. “Uganda’s national game of musical chairs needs to stop. Corrupt officials shouldn’t be able to wriggle out of the prosecutors’ grasp.”

Despite renewed pledges to fight corruption in 2013, the Ugandan government has arrested at least 28 anti-corruption activists who were distributing information to the public. Some have been charged with inciting violence and unlawful assembly, and are required to report regularly to the police. The harassment of these activists calls into serious question the government’s commitment to fighting corruption. Rather than harassing activists and obstructing public access to information, the government should support the crucial role of activists in upholding human rights and anti-corruption efforts.

In 2012 approximately 30 percent of Uganda’s national budget came from donor support. Donors have suspended aid at various times in response to high-profile graft, but donor funding has nearly always resumed despite the lack of significant reform or high-level prosecutions. International donors should increase their focus on strategies that will promote accountability at the highest levels of government and ensure that any re-engagement is based on substantive changes to Uganda’s anti-corruption structures.

International donors should also actively and vocally support activists working to document and raise awareness of corruption, by financially supporting their work, publicly denouncing their arrests and harassment, and visiting them in police detention.

“The government and its donors need to work harder to ensure that President Museveni’s administration lives up to its pledges to tackle corruption,” Burnett said. “That means putting members of government, including political appointees, behind bars if they are guilty of corruption.”

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