(Kampala) – An opposition member of parliament was reportedly tortured after security forces arrested him for distributing food to constituents on April 19, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. Uganda should urgently investigate the claims by witnesses that Francis Zaake was tortured and hold those responsible to account.
On March 30, President Yoweri Museveni directed the police to arrest politicians who distribute food after he banned public and private transport, suspended non-essential services, and closed non-food markets to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The government said that food donations had to go through a government-organized task force.
“Police brutality is always prohibited, pandemic or no pandemic,” said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch, “Uganda’s authorities should urgently look into these allegations and hold those responsible to account.”
While enforcing the government’s Covid-19 measures, security forces have beaten, arbitrarily arrested, and shot civilians, including vendors, journalists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that security forces, purportedly enforcing these measures, have harassed or assaulted at least six journalists since March 19.
Police arrested Zaake at his home in Mityana, about 70 kilometers north of Kampala, as he distributed food to people hard hit by the Covid-19 restrictions. The police held Zaake at the Special Investigations Unit in Kireka, Kampala, and initially denied his lawyers and family members access to him.
On April 22, police transferred Zaake to the Iran-Uganda Hospital in Naguru, where he was being treated for an undisclosed condition while remaining in police custody. The police have denied reports that Zaake was tortured, but three witnesses who saw Zaake told Human Rights Watch that he was unable to walk and appeared to have been severely beaten.
Paul Mwiru, a parliament member who managed to visit Zaake while he was in detention in Kireka, told Human Rights Watch that Zaake could not see and had flesh missing from his chest: “They had beaten his back. He had a lot of bruises in the face. He would not move, because they had hit him so badly.”
Meddard Sseggona Lubega, Zaake’s lawyer, who visited Zaake in hospital, also saw his injuries: “His legs were swollen, and his head was bruised.” Lubega said Zaake told him that soldiers tortured him while he was detained.
Television news footage at the time of Zaake’s arrest on April 19 shows him able to walk without any apparent injuries. On April 20, police announced that they had charged him with attempted murder, disobedience of lawful orders, and negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease, but did not take him to court within the 48 hours required by Ugandan law.
The police took Zaake before a magistrate’s court in Mityana to be charged on April 27, over a week after his arrest. The magistrate, however, declined to bring charges because of Zaake’s “ill health” and ordered the authorities to provide medical treatment first. Witnesses who were in the courtroom told Human Rights Watch that Zaake was unable to walk, struggled to breathe, and appeared to be in very poor condition.
Law enforcement in Uganda has abused opposition members in the past. In 2018, soldiers beat Zaake and 32 others, including the opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, in Arua. Police arrested Zaake, who was later taken, unconscious, by “men in military uniform” to a hospital in Kampala. At the time, a witness told Human Rights Watch that they had seen Special Forces Command soldiers beating Zaake. There has been no effective investigation, prosecution, or any form of justice for these abuses, even though Ugandan law prohibits torture and requires public officers to be held individually liable.
“The coronavirus pandemic does not give the government and authorities the right to attack critics and opposition members or dispense with due process,” Nyeko said. “The government should ensure that Zaake gets all necessary quality health care, investigate these serious allegations of torture, and follow up with appropriate action.”