(Kampala) – The Ugandan government should urgently suspend the crime preventer program ahead of the February 2016 national elections, said Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Network Uganda (HURINET-U), Chapter Four Uganda, and Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) today. Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for February 18.
“Crime preventers” are a volunteer force of civilians recruited and managed by police to report on and prevent crime in cooperation with the police and communities. In practice, crime preventers are strongly affiliated with the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. Its members have acted in partisan ways and carried out brutal assaults and extortion with no accountability, the organizations said.
“Using volunteer or reserve forces to complement community policing is not a new or inherently bad concept, but these forces need to be regulated, impartial, effectively trained, and held accountable to the highest standards if they take on policing functions,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Crime preventers should not be undisciplined and unaccountable recruits who become the eyes and muscle of the ruling party in every village.”
With the elections just weeks away, suspending crime preventers is critical for preventing violence during the electoral period and showing the country’s commitment to nonpartisan policing and respect for human rights, the organizations said.
Scant information is available about the exact mandate, command structure, and number of crime preventers, and there is no legal statute establishing the program. Although the government has said that a bill will soon be brought to parliament, there is insufficient time before the elections for parliament to adequately debate such a law and for the government to implement it appropriately, the groups said.
Official statements indicate that the program is vast and that recruitment rapidly increased in the months leading up to the official start of the presidential campaign period in November 2015.
Officials have said that police aim to have at least 30 crime preventers per village, which would total more than 1 million people throughout the country. President Yoweri Museveni and other senior government officials were photographed in 2015 at several graduation ceremonies for people who completed a training program, and they are quoted as saying that hundreds of thousands of people have been trained.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch separately interviewed 20 crime preventers and more than 120 people familiar with or affected by their operations from May to December 2015, in eight towns across Uganda. There is clear evidence that the crime preventer program is linked to the ruling political party and that the crime preventers’ actions are frequently both unlawful and partisan, aimed at intimidating or reducing support for the political opposition, the organizations said.
During several training sessions and “passouts,” or graduations, recruits wore yellow T-shirts, the color of the ruling National Resistance Movement. A copy of a crime preventer training manual from one region states: “Every good thing you are seeing around is as a result of good NRM governance.”
The police say that crime preventer recruits are trained in self-defense, ideology, patriotism, and crime prevention techniques. One crime preventer training manual seen by Human Rights Watch states they should report to police “any crime which is about to be committed or has been committed within their area [by] picking information…in public places, burials, weddings, bars or anywhere you can get rumors.” It urges crime preventers to “do your work secretly,” and “don’t advertise yourself as a crime preventer because even the one you are investigating can turn against you.”
Uganda’s Inspector General told Amnesty International, “[Crime preventers] are my CCTV [closed circuit television].”
Crime preventers have intimidated members of the political opposition and their supporters. One person interviewed alleged that crime preventers had gone door-to-door in one village, cataloguing the political affiliations of villagers to intimidate them and discourage them from voting for the political opposition. Another crime preventer – a supporter of an opposition political party – told Human Rights Watch that commanders discriminated against him and attempted to expel him from training due to his political party affiliation.
A crime preventer in Fort Portal told Human Rights Watch, “The commander told me that I should fight hard and fight the other parties. He said that we’re living in the ruling NRM era so other parties don’t need to surface.”
Crime preventers are also vulnerable to being used – either paid or duped – to support or oppose particular political candidates. Crime preventers from Gulu alleged that one member of parliament instructed them to wear T-shirts with an X crossing out “JPAM,” the initials of John Patrick Amama Mbabazi, one of the presidential candidates, and to demonstrate against him. One crime preventer in Fort Portal said that a candidate paid his colleagues, armed with sticks, to beat up and disperse his opponent’s supporters.
Crime preventers have also carried out violent arrests and extortion. Between May and October 2015, crime preventers violently beat at least 10 people with their fists and batons in separate incidents during arrests and extorted money from them, based on Amnesty International interviews with 13 victims and witnesses in Kampala and Gulu. Six of them were severely beaten by more than one crime preventer. Those responsible should be prosecuted for torture under Ugandan law covering torture by non-state actors, the groups said. A staff member at an organization that documents cases of torture registered 25 cases of people beaten by crime preventers between September 2014 and June 2015.
A 25-year-old man in Kampala told Amnesty International that in June 2015, two crime preventers broke his left hand as they beat him with wooden sticks across his head, chest and limbs when questioning him about an alleged theft. He was not subsequently arrested.
“Crime preventers are not here to prevent crime,” he said. “They are here to do the police’s dirty work.”
One crime preventer in Gulu admitted to Human Rights Watch: “Some of my colleagues use a lot of force arresting. There was a day we went to arrest a suspected thief. One of my colleagues just started to beat. They try to beat to kill.”
A 30-year-old man from Wandegeya, Kampala was violently beaten by two crime preventers in July 2015 after they stopped him to demand 2,000 Ugandan shillings (US$0.57). The crime preventers beat and kicked him when he was unable to give them any money, causing bleeding and bruising, as Amnesty International documented.
The ill-defined role and oversight of crime preventers is a serious cause for concern during upcoming elections, the groups said. As crime preventers are not regulated under Ugandan law, they not only have been able to commit abuses with impunity, but they are unprepared and unclear on their objectives and powers. Crime preventers themselves in Gulu and Lira voiced serious fears of working to arrest possibly dangerous suspected thieves when they had no way to protect themselves.
While crime preventers do not receive a formal government salary, many of them believe they will have preferential access to government jobs or financial or material compensation for their work. A coordinator of crime preventers said: “Crime preventers are not getting any salary. They’re poor. When somebody is poor, he’s hungry and needs food now. Someone comes with food now and says help me here. Some can definitely use them.”
Crime preventers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they hoped the program would be a stepping stone to employment with the Ugandan police, military, or prison services. Those interviewed by Amnesty International described financial incentives for joining. One said he was promised a bicycle, while others expected payments ranging from 20,000 to 300,000 Ugandan shillings (US$5.80 to US$87).
In November 2015, the police confirmed to Amnesty International that many crime preventers were given clothing, transport refunds, and food, and should be given priority for participation in Operation Wealth Creation, a government program to create projects to generate household income.
“Crime preventers work in a gray area between the state and civilians, allowing them to operate with impunity and without oversight or clear command structure,” said Ndifuna Mohammed, CEO of Human Rights Network-Uganda. “The Ugandan government’s commitment to regulate crime preventers weeks before the elections is too little, too late. They need to suspend the crime preventers program to reduce the potential for voter intimidation and further human rights abuses.”
In a December 2015 report, Human Rights Network-Uganda recommended halting the recruitment of crime preventers until a legal regime is in place. Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda has stated that “an enabling law should be put in place to guide the implementation of community policing, including the activities of crime preventers,” but the draft law is yet to be sent to parliament.
The police informed Amnesty International that they had drafted standard operating procedures for crime preventers as of November. They said crime preventers derive legal authority from article 212(d) of the Ugandan constitution, which mandates the police to cooperate with the “civilian authority…and with the population generally.”
Under international human rights law, the Ugandan government is responsible for the actions of those it empowers to act on its behalf. Authorizing a force to operate without proper legal basis or accountability violates its basic obligations to respect and protect fundamental human rights.
“Ugandans deserve an adequately trained police force that will be held to account for their conduct,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, regional director of East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes at Amnesty International. “Elections are a critical and vulnerable time for the country and there should be no room for partisan policing. The lack of a clear legal basis for the crime preventers program and the unlawful activities they are carrying out could jeopardize Uganda’s ability to have a safe electoral period.”