The campus of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

© 2019 Oryem Nyeko for Human Rights Watch

(Kampala) – The Ugandan police and military have cracked down on student protests over fee increases at Makerere University in Kampala on multiple occasions since October 22, 2019. The security forces have fired teargas into student residences, raided dormitories, and beaten and arrested students, detaining dozens for days without charge.

The police have also arrested journalists and prevented them from entering the university to cover the protests. The authorities have accused opposition politicians of paying students to protest and the media of reporting false news about security forces attacking students. The Ugandan government should urgently carry out fair and transparent investigations and hold accountable security forces who have used excessive force against protesters and otherwise abused their authority.

“Uganda’s armed forces are apparently using disproportionate violence against student protests and journalists trying to cover them,” said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should immediately end abusive crackdowns and hold those responsible for any abuses to account in a fair and transparent manner.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed multiple witnesses to the attacks.

The crackdowns started on October 22, when 12 female students staged a protest on campus over a fee increase. Police arrested them but released them later that day.

Siperia Saasiraabo, a student leader who was among the 12, gave a TV interview in which she said she had received threatening text messages telling her not to protest. The next day, Saasiraabo was reported missing and found unconscious, without her mobile phone, in a neighborhood near the university. Police denied that she was abducted, and university authorities have since suspended Saasiraabo and eight other students for participating in the protest.

On October 23, students continued to protest, and police arrested 20 of them. On October 24, as protests continued, soldiers surrounded two residence halls and fired teargas into the students’ rooms. Media also reported that soldiers forced students to roll on the ground outside a hall half-dressed.

One student told Human Rights Watch that, after soldiers fired teargas into his room, he jumped out of the window to escape the smoke and was arrested by soldiers waiting outside. He said soldiers took him to a military vehicle, where they beat and taunted him.

“They would ask questions and tell us to sing the national anthem and beat us whether we responded or not,” the student said. “They would say things like, ‘You say this. Why were you guys throwing stones at us?’ Some were saying, ‘You guys think you can overthrow this government?’” Police then drove him and five others to the police station in Wandegeya, a kilometer from the university, where several other students were also detained.

Later that evening, students said, soldiers stormed Lumumba Hall, a student dormitory, and attacked the residents. Witnesses said that the soldiers indiscriminately beat students, including those with disabilities, and destroyed their property. Several students were admitted to the Makerere University Hospital with injuries. Human Rights Watch visited Lumumba Hall on October 26 and saw broken doors, mirrors, and television sets.

On October 25, the Chief Magistrate’s court ordered police to unconditionally release 46 students arrested over the course of the week. Eron Kiiza, a lawyer representing the students, said that police released the students, but the following week detained at least 22 more, who remain in detention.

On the morning of October 25, security forces blocked from the university journalists trying to attend a news conference by students with disabilities who had been attacked the previous day and ordered journalists already there to leave. Outside the room, police then attacked a journalist, Davidson Ndyabahika, as he took photos of a policeman striking a blind student, damaging Ndyabahika’s equipment, Ndyabahika and other witnesses said.

“I started taking photos of the incident as other journalists were recording clips of what was happening,” he said. “This [officer-in-charge], with three stars, [was] coming for me and held my left arm and twisted it. I think his intention was to arrest me.” The police did not arrest Ndyabahika after a group of other journalists intervened.

University authorities have continued to block journalists from entering the campus, and on October 29, police arrested at least three journalists, but released them later that day.

In a statement, police denied beating students who were at the news conference and said that “none of the disabled students was arrested or manhandled.”

On November 1, the military spokesman, Richard Karemire, announced that Capt. Ronald Lubeera, who he said led troops at the university, had been arrested and detained at the military barracks in Makindye in Kampala and that a board of inquiry had been set up to “establish details of what happened and findings will guide the next course of action.” The government has promised to investigate allegations of abuse by the military in the past, but these investigations have not released their findings.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented that Ugandan forces beat and arrested journalists covering protests. In April, the Uganda Communications Commission ordered 13 media organizations to suspend their staff after they reported on the arrest of opposition politicians. In October, it directed five of the media outlets to explain why their licenses should not be suspended, cautioned several others, and suspended a radio show.

Media reports have alleged that Ugandan security forces used excessive force to break up student protests in the past, including in Kyambogo University in March, where soldiers and police fired teargas and live bullets at students protesting a fee payment policy.

Ugandan and international law protects basic freedoms of speech and assembly and the right to protest peacefully. Security forces may only use force where necessary and proportionate, but they again appear to have far exceeded these limits.

“The government should allow students to protest peacefully and should not use excessive force to infringe on their right to protest,” Nyeko said. “The authorities should allow the media to cover these events, conduct credible and transparent investigations of the alleged abuses by security forces, and publicize the findings.”