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Uganda’s efforts to contain opposition leader and former presidential candidate, Dr. Kizza Besigye, have reached cartoon-like absurdity. The cat and mouse game seems to have no end – police chase his car, block his way, tow his car into police custody while he sits inside, and arbitrarily barricade him in his home for weeks.

A still from video shows security forces caning and beating supporters of Dr. Kizza Besigye as they gathered to see him on his way home from prison, following his bail. © 2016 NBS TV Uganda

It would be comical, if it weren’t always marked by brazen brutality against bystanders.

Last week, Besigye was granted bail, after two months in detention in the wake of the February 2016 elections. President Museveni, in power since 1986, had been declared the winner. But Besigye cried foul, declared himself the winner, called for an independent audit of the election, and released a video of himself “swearing in” as president. On May 18, he was charged with treason.

As people gathered to see Besigye travel home from prison, video evidence shows security forces – both in and out of uniform, on foot and in vehicles – began caning and beating everyone and anyone they could reach to scatter the crowds. As videos of the incident circulated, politicians, human rights activists, and journalists condemned the flagrant and arbitrary attack. A local journalist claimed that Ugandans had been lashed like “stray cattle to keep them in check.”

General Kayihura, Uganda’s long-standing inspector general of police, later held a press conference to defend the beatings, applauding the police officers’ actions. He said beating people with sticks was better than using bullets and teargas, which has earned Uganda a bad reputation.

His preposterous defense illustrates Uganda’s flawed approach to public order management. Kayihura’s officers seem to have no power to determine for themselves what constitutes a proportionate response, the bedrock principle of the UN’s guidelines on police use of force. Time and again officers use a weapon – live bullets, teargas, now even sticks –even if the situation doesn’t warrant the use of any force at all.

The UN Principles state that for the use of force to be lawful, there must be a legitimate objective. But the videos of police thrashing bystanders and beating motorcycle drivers suggests their only objective was to punish Ugandans for being anywhere near President Museveni’s political rival. Until Uganda’s police only use force when it’s warranted, freedom of assembly remains under assault. Some Ugandans bear the lash-marks as evidence.

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