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(Nairobi) – Ugandan authorities should investigate the conduct of security forces in response to recent clashes in western Uganda, Human Rights Watch said today. Security forces killed dozens of people and arrested at least 139 during violence on November 26 and 27, 2016, in the town of Kasese between Royal Guards of the region’s cultural kingdom, Obusinga bwa Rwenzururu (Bakonzo), and government forces.

The grave of Anna Kuguma, who was killed in Katumba, Kirumya sub-county in Bundibugyo district, Uganda, around February 27, 2016. © 2016 Human Rights Watch

Many details of the violence, including the total death toll, remain unclear. Police have stated that 46 Royal Guards were killed and 139 others arrested following attacks on several police stations on November 26, during which at least 14 police officers were killed. The king was also arrested on November 27, and eventually transferred to Nalufenya police post in Jinja, Eastern Uganda, where he is still being held. Police have not yet said what, if any, charges will be brought against him. There is no independent corroboration of affiliation or total number of those killed.

“The events on November 26 and 27 are yet another tragic loss of life in the Rwenzori region, which has already suffered many deaths,” said Maria Burnett, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to investigate and put equal effort into prosecuting crimes by both sides, including government security or intelligence forces, and address grievances in the community, or the violence in the region may ignite again.”

Photographs of what appeared to be dead bodies, some of men with their hands tied behind their backs, circulated on social media on November 27. Police have blocked access to the area around the palace in Kasese and families are not being permitted to collect bodies.

Police also arrested a prominent journalist, Joy Doreen Biira, and charged her with “abetting terrorism,” then released her. Police allege she was not permitted to photograph some events during the violence. Journalists should be able to report on events of public interest without fear of arrest or intimidation from state forces, Human Rights Watch said.

The Rwenzori region in western Uganda is the site of past violence. A Human Rights Watch investigation found that between February and April, 2016, members of the Bakonzo and Bamba ethnic groups clashed following contested local elections and political infighting, resulting in at least 30 deaths. During the subsequent law enforcement operations, the Ugandan police and military killed at least 17 people. One police officer and two soldiers were also killed.

For example, on March 10, a group allegedly from the Bakonzo ethnic group attacked soldiers in Hima Town Council, stabbing and injuring four. In response, the soldiers fatally shot two people. The clashes in Hima led to at least four more incidents between the government and Royal Guards, resulting in the deaths of six Royal Guards, three government security forces, and one person not affiliated with either security force. Footage of some of those events was shared widely on social media. Royal Guards are volunteers who provide security to the customary king.

In the wake of the violence earlier this year, Human Rights Watch wrote to the inspector general of police, urging him to order investigations into the killings of at least 50 people, including 17 killed by security forces. The inspector general has not replied.

In July 2014, local media reports suggested that after members of the Bakonzo ethnic group attacked police and army posts, government security forces killed at least 100 people in reprisal killings. Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the possible involvement of government forces in reprisal attacks and torture, and the limited protection for civilians in the following days.

There has been little or no investigation of the conduct of government forces in these violent episodes or into the arrests of hundreds of civilians, some of whom have faced trial before military courts, Human Rights Watch said. Some government officials, including a parliamentary committee on defense and internal affairs, and the Uganda Human Rights Commission, have conducted investigations that are understood to have been completed earlier in 2016, but their reports have not been made public and it is not clear if they will be.

Some leaders from the community said in a letter to President Yoweri Museveni in July 2014, that they have numerous concerns that the government is failing to address, including land conflicts and high unemployment rates among Bakonzo people.

All those arrested should be brought before a court of law within 48 hours or released, and everyone, including government troops and their commanders, should face investigations into their conduct that led to the deaths, Human Rights Watch said. The prosecuting authorities should investigate all instances of lethal use of force by security forces.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require law enforcement officials, including military units responding to national emergencies, to apply nonviolent means before resorting to 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 principles also provide that governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under their law.

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