The use of torture as a tool of interrogation is foremost among an escalation in human rights violations by Ugandan security and military forces since 2001. In what most victims consider a state-sanctioned campaign of political suppression, official and ad hoc military, security and intelligence agencies of the Ugandan government have proliferated, practicing illegal and arbitrary detention and unlawful killing/extrajudicial executions, and using torture to force victims to confess to links to the government’s past political opponents or current rebel groups. These abuses are not acknowledged by the Ugandan government that instead fosters an enabling climate in which such human rights abuses persist and increase while perpetrators of torture, rather than be held accountable, act with impunity.
Forms of torture in use in Uganda include kandoya (tying hands and feet behind the victim) and suspension from the ceiling of victims tied kandoya, “Liverpool” water torture (forcing the victim to lie face up, mouth open, under a flowing water spigot), severe and repeated beatings with metal or wooden poles, cables, hammers and sticks with nails protruding, pistol-whipping, electrocution, male and female genital and body mutilation, death threats (through showing fresh graves, corpses and snakes), strangulation, restraint, isolation, and verbal abuse and humiliation. Some of these practices have resulted in the death of detainees in custody. An informal survey at Kigo Prison near Kampala, where “political” cases are held, indicated in June 2003 that 90 percent of detainees/prisoners had been tortured during their prior detention by state military and security agencies.
Most victims of illegal detention and torture attribute their treatment to political suppression, reporting that security or military agents accused them of past or current political opposition, insurrection or support for rebel groups, treason or terrorism, or of knowing persons involved in such activities. Others report they were accused of having engaged in or witnessed criminal activity such as murder or robbery, while some link their abuse to personal disputes and vendettas by officials.
Under Ugandan criminal law, only the police are authorized to detain a suspect, who within forty-eight hours must be transferred to the jurisdiction of the criminal court to be charged, or released. The constitution requires military, security and intelligence agencies to promptly turn suspects over to police for detention. Since 2001, however, these agencies and new ad hoc security agencies created without legal status by the government – the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force (JATF), Operation Wembley and its successor Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU)—have defied laws regulating arrest and detention with no consequences. Even greater opportunity for abuse is afforded by constitutional provision for pre-trial 360-day detention without bail or probable cause shown for persons suspected of treason and most forms of terrorism, which can include “opposing the state” or possessing a gun.
Ugandan security and military agencies routinely take suspects to unacknowledged and ungazetted (not published in the official gazette) places of detention including safe houses and army barracks. Although abolished by Parliament in 1995, safe houses re-emerged in Uganda during the 2001 election campaign, and now operate with no official condemnation or effort to close them down. The 2002 report of a Parliamentary committee investigation into safe houses has not been finalized nor made public by the government. Now an established feature of the Ugandan system of detention, safe houses provide security and military forces with opportunity for unseen torture and interrogation of suspects.
During incidents of incommunicado detention, interrogation and torture in safe houses, a common pattern of conduct by state and military agencies demonstrates an intention to commit unlawful acts and deliberate efforts to confer impunity on perpetrators. These acts include hiding the identity of detaining officers, who are often out of uniform, and of the detaining agencies; the absence of a search or arrest warrant; refusal to let the suspect contact family, lawyer, or anyone else; isolation of the suspect; hiding the identity and location of the detention place by blindfolding the suspect; statements by interrogators that there is no recourse, the suspect is powerless, they are all-powerful; and statements by interrogators that they have the ability to punish the suspect in the future, including prolonging detention.
These practices, coupled with torture, are designed to elicit confessions for use in military intelligence and sometimes for prosecution, and to discourage the suspect from persisting in the alleged activities. As they are hidden and illegal, such practices provide an environment in which other unlawful acts are carried out, such as robbery and theft of personal property, settling of personal scores, and sexual abuse and rape.
The most successful recourse available to suspects detained illegally or incommunicado is for relatives, friends or associates to retain an attorney to seek a writ of habeas corpus from the High Court. By directing the detaining agency to show cause why the suspect should not be released, such writs typically result in the filing of charges for treason or terrorism triggering a 360 day detention period and transfer of the suspect to prison, where torture is rare. A writ may end torture or prevent summary execution, but seldom results in release—and is accessible only to those with resources to pay an attorney.
Colonel Noble Mayombo, head of the Chieftancy of Military Intelligence, claims in a letter to Human Rights Watch of March 13, 2004, that before a suspect appears in court for any capital offence, including treason and terrorism, he must be examined by a medical doctor on a Police Medical Form (P.F. 24) to establish the existence (or absence) of any torture marks on the suspect, and his mental condition. This form has apparently fallen into disuse and, contrary to claims, courts do not require its production. In the same letter, Colonel Mayombo denied allegations of torture made by various individuals (below), but did not once refer to the police medical examination.
Uganda’s rising tide of human rights abuses—torture chief among them—is a reversal of “recorded improvements in the observance of human rights by the state in Uganda” from 1986 to 2000, according to a nongovernmental Ugandan human rights group. Since 2001, “many human rights violations in breach of the rights to life, liberty and security of person have been recorded.” The official Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) documents that “torture is on the increase and, during the period under review [January 2001-September 2002], more cases than ever had been received.”
In summary, conditions facilitating torture, illegal arrest and detention and unlawful death by state and military forces in Uganda include:
During two weeks in June 2003, and in September 2003, and during two weeks in April 2002, Human Rights Watch visited Uganda and interviewed former and current prisoners including those who suffered torture, their relatives, attorneys, care givers, and a wide range of people with first-hand information about torture and ill treatment, the criminal justice system, and human rights protection. The prisoners came from different parts of Uganda and were found in Kigo and Luzira Prisons near Kampala and Mobuku Prison in Kasese. Former prisoners were also interviewed in Kampala and Kasese. A total of twenty prisoners and former prisoners were interviewed at length, and many more were interviewed for less than an hour each. Human Rights Watch supplemented this material with data that is widely available in public sources, including reports written or provided by local and international rights groups, newspapers, politicians, trade unions, and pressure groups. This report does not purport to be a statistical study.