<<previous  | index  |  next>>

III. Background

2001 Presidential Elections

The March 12, 2001 presidential elections in Uganda were conducted against a background of abuses of civilian opposition campaigners by government military and security organs.1 The incumbent president Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, won the election with 69.3 percent of the votes, according to the tally of the electoral commission on March 14, 2001. The runner-up, Dr. and Col. (Ret.) Kizza Besigye, received 27.8 percent of the votes.2

On coming to power in 1986, President Museveni introduced the “movement” system of government as an alternative to a multiparty system, to which he attributed the past violence and sectarianism of Uganda’s politics. Under the movement system, all candidates and citizens would belong to the system and candidates would run for elections based on their personal merit rather than party affiliation.

A pyramid of five levels of councils (LC-1 to LC-5), from the village to the national level, was designed to ensure grassroots participation at all levels of society, up to the position of resident district commissioner, which is appointed by the president. In practice, the “no-party” system has significantly curtailed civil and political rights of those who are in political opposition to Museveni’s government.3 The 1995 constitution currently in force allows political parties to exist in name, but outlaws or restricts all the activities normally associated with political parties.

After the 2001 election, Kizza Besigye, a medical doctor who started out with Museveni in the “bush” as an NRA member, was prevented from traveling to South Africa; on March 20, 2001, he was detained and questioned by the police Criminal Investigations Division (CID), allegedly in connection with the offense of treason. On June 30, he was detained by the police for hours at a roadblock on Masaka road, while traveling to Mbarara, until the local populace came to his rescue. In September 2001, he left the country and has not returned.

Before leaving the country, presidential candidate Kizza Besigye challenged the election results in the Supreme Court of Uganda on March 23, 2001. The Court ruled on his petition on April 21, 2001, and by a vote of three to two, it dismissed the petition and upheld the election results. 4 However, two of the five justices concluded that there were such illegalities in the elections that the results should be thrown out. Even the three judges who voted that the illegalities did not affect the result of the election in a substantial manner agreed that there were illegalities and that “there was evidence that in a significant number of Polling Stations there was cheating” and that in some areas of the country, “the principle of free and fair election was compromised.”5

Rebel Groups in Uganda

The history of Uganda since independence has been littered with armed groups seeking to overthrow the government. Those now in power were themselves rebels who captured the government through armed struggle. Since it came to power in 1986, the current government has succeeded in militarily defeating armed challenges to its rule, except the seventeen-year war against the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda still continuing, now expanded to the east.

Ugandan authorities believe the following rebel groups still exist:

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has been engaged in a long war in the Acholi north of Uganda (1986-present), carrying out a campaign of terror against civilians, including widespread abduction of children. It expanded its activities to eastern Uganda in 2003.

The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the west, a diverse coalition of fighters formed in 1995, with bases also in Eastern Congo, which has carried out attacks and displaced people in several districts in the south-west of Uganda and is alleged by the government to be responsible for several bomb explosions in Kampala from 1997 to 1999.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), last heard from in 1995 but recently alleged to have renewed activities in 2002, based in the east of the country.

The Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF) II in the northwest, operating out of Sudanese bases and partly formed by former fighters with former President Idi Amin’s army. The UNRF signed a peace agreement with the government in December 2002.

The West Nile Bank Front (WNBF), headed by a former Idi Amin minister and based in the northwest since 1996.

The Kizza Besigye campaigners and a loose coalition of opposition parties and persons, who together took the name of Reform Agenda, have been targeted by the Ugandan government and accused of starting another rebel group, the People’s Redemption Army (PRA). Among the leading figures alleged to be involved in forming the PRA is Col. Samson Mande, a former UPDF officer. It appears from questions posed to some of the detainees that the authorities believe that the government of Rwanda was implicated in organizing such a group. Among those arrested for alleged involvement in the PRA are several who were arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). No allegation of rebel activity by Besigye or Reform Agenda people has been proven in any court. Some individual statements, allegedly made under coercion or while the accused was in custody without an attorney, have been produced, mostly in the press, in support of such allegations.

Reform Agenda campaigners are not the only ones suspected of rebellion, however.

Treason and Terrorism Laws

Treason is defined in the Penal Code as levying war against Uganda, plotting to overthrow the government, and causing or attempting to cause the death of or injury to the president. It also includes attempting by force to change the government or intimidate the national assembly, or instigating any person to invade Uganda with an armed force. All these offences carry a mandatory death sentence. “Misprision of treason” is also an offense, and consists of failing to inform officials of any person’s intent to commit treason, or failing to endeavor to prevent treason, and it carries a life sentence.6

A Suppression of Terrorism Bill was first introduced in Parliament in 2001, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, bombings in the United States (U.S.).7 The Ugandan government sought to justify the proposed legislation by reference to a wave of terrorism in the capital Kampala, from late 1997 to 1999, in which 160 people were injured and more than fifty died. The ADF was believed to have carried out most of these bombings.

The final law, the Anti-Terrorism Act, was enacted in 2002. The Anti-Terrorism Act contains an overly broad definition of terrorism and generally refers to “opponents of the state,” thus making those in the media and public life who have divergent views suspect. The terrorism law contains rather sweeping provisions For example, possession of unlicensed firearms is tantamount to terrorism. Once the prosecutor proves possession, the burden of proof of innocence shifts to the defendant.8 Clause 14 empowers ministers to declare an organization “terrorist,” without challenge in court.9

Charges of treason and terrorism can be brought both in the High Court and in a court martial. Magistrates’ courts, which are responsible for lesser offenses, do not have jurisdiction to try these cases. Nor do they have jurisdiction to receive a plea nor grant bail. However, civilians accused, even of death penalty offenses, are charged in the magistrates’ court and at that point the accused is transferred from the custody of the police (or other arresting agency) to prison. The accused may be held up to 360 days (from the time of arrest) before the case is sent to the High Court for trial; this is theoretically to give the prosecution time to investigate. At day 360, if there is no case against the accused, then he is supposed to be released. These time limits, however, are not always honored.

If there is a case against the accused, then the charges are presented to the High Court, the defendant enters a plea, and the case is set for trial by the High Court. There are no time limits, however, on the time the case may wait for trial.

Courts martial take jurisdiction of a case involving military or former military personnel, and of cases where civilians allegedly act together with military or former personnel.

Treason and terrorism are among fifteen crimes for which the death penalty can be handed down on conviction.10 The number of persons condemned to death rose from nearly 300 at the end of 2001 to 354 in December 31, 2002, and to 399 by June 2003,11 a jump of 33 percent in one and a half years. Executions are carried out by hanging. The execution of those condemned by court martial is by a firing squad at a military base. There can be no execution without a presidential signature on the death warrant. In each death penalty conviction, the president has the authority to grant mercy. A constitutionally-created committee advises the president on this issue.

Government statistics reveal that between 1986 and 2001 fifty-two executions were carried out. Five UPDF soldiers were executed for murder in two cases in 2002 and 2003.12 Numerous condemned prisoners have lingered on death row for more than ten years, and many have died waiting, according to a Ugandan nongovernmental organization, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI).13 The principal impact of the death penalty in security-related cases is to elevate the case to the High Court for trial and to warrant protracted pre-accusation and pre-trial detention with little chance for bail. As indicated above, 399 people were awaiting execution in Luzira Prison as of June 2003.


In 2000, the Ugandan parliament passed an Amnesty Act “for Ugandans involved in acts of a war-like nature in various parts of the country.” The Act provided that: “An Amnesty is declared in respect of any Ugandan who has at any time since the 26th day of January, 1986 engaged in or is engaging in war or armed rebellion against the government of the Republic of Uganda by actual participation in combat; collaborating with the perpetrators of the war or armed rebellion; committing any other crime in the furtherance of the war or armed rebellion; or assisting or aiding the conduct or prosecution of the war or armed rebellion.”

The amnesty depends on individual application to the authorities for a “certificate of amnesty,” and a statement that the person concerned “renounces and abandons involvement in the war or armed rebellion.”14 If amnesty is granted, the person concerned should not be “prosecuted or subjected to any form of punishment for the participation in the war or rebellion for any crime committed in the cause of the war or armed rebellion.” The grant of amnesty is in the power of the director of public prosecutions (DPP), rather than a judicial-type body. An Amnesty Commission has been created, chaired by a judge, but the commission has responsibility only for overseeing the demobilization and reintegration of those applying for amnesty, not for adjudicating applications.

A number of combatants from the various rebel groups have returned to Uganda under the provisions of this law. Amnesty petitions are also available in the civilian prisons and prisoners—including those charged with treason or terrorism—may fill them out and send them to the authorities without a lawyer.

Although this part of the process moves along quickly, it stalls when the petition reaches the DPP. The prisoners qualifying for amnesty usually experience an enormous delay between applying for amnesty and being released. 15 Human Rights Watch interviewed several in civilian prisons who had applied more than one year earlier but were very discouraged that they had not received any feedback at all from the authorities.

A human rights group based in Kampala made a list of amnesty applications submitted by prisoners to the DPP and awaiting amnesty as of January 7, 2003.16 There were 141 individuals listed by name, date the amnesty petition was presented to the DPP (between the dates of May 21, 2001 through August 15, 2002), location of the individual, and current status. Of them, only thirteen of 141 applicants (9 percent) had been granted amnesty and released. In late 2002 and early 2003 the UHRC, the Amnesty Commission, and the DPP accompanied donor representatives from various embassies to carry out prison visits.17 Prisoners complained to them that many had been waiting in prison for one and a half years after signing a request for amnesty, and indeed many had even been committed to High Court for trial, despite signing the amnesty. As a result of this donor visit, the amnesty process was speeded up and many were released but as others submitted amnesty petitions the backlog continued to grow. The amnesty covers major atrocities as well as minor abuses. Human Rights Watch is opposed to amnesties for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Who Detains and Tortures: The Security Forces

Under the Ugandan constitution, anyone may arrest. The Uganda Police Force has, under the constitution and the 1964 Police Act, the usual powers of arrest; police officers are primarily responsible for arresting criminal suspects. However, arrests by non-police are limited. One of two narrow conditions must be met: a person in the view of a citizen commits an offense recognized as a violation of law, or is reasonably suspected of having committed a felony.18 If a citizen conducts a citizen’s arrest, he must turn the suspect over to the police immediately.

Those agencies accused by witnesses and victims of illegal detention in violation of these rules include:

The Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF): the Ugandan army, formerly known as the National Resistance Army (NRA), has no legal powers of detention, with exceptions for violations of the military code by its personnel.19 The Ugandan combatants it captures are considered criminals for the purposes of Ugandan law, and they are supposed to be transferred—quickly—to the jurisdiction and custody of the police.20 The UHRC noted in February 2003 that the actions of soldiers who unlawfully detain any person in arrest or confinement are “outright criminal.”21 In the same case, the UHRC also found that “torture as a method of extracting confessions from suspected criminals is a trend and not an isolated wrong in the UPDF 3rd Division.”22 Accounts of torture at the hands of UPDF soldiers and officers have been surfacing for some years and come from all over Uganda but are particularly numerous in areas where there is an on-going armed rebellion, as in northern Uganda.23

The Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), a military intelligence agency. CMI has no powers of detention. In most of the reports of torture at the hands of CMI received by Human Rights Watch, the torture was conducted in safe houses and offices of CMI, and at times in barracks. CMI personnel often are assigned to participate in ad hoc security agencies, such as the Joint Anti-Terrorist Task Force and Operation Wembley.

The Internal Security Organization (ISO) and its regional offices the District Internal Security Organizations (DISO) It is responsible for “internal” security and the External Security Organisation (ESO) is responsible for security abroad. ISO has no powers of detention.

The Joint Anti-Terrorist Task Force (JATF). The JATF is an ad hoc agency created after the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2002. It consists of agents from CMI, police, and ISO. The JATF has no statutory authority to detain people in its own right; however police officers working within it have the same rights to detain as when they are assigned to other police duties.

The Kalangala Action Plan (KAP), an informal group created by the ruling party without legislative mandate, headed by the senior presidential advisor, Maj. Ronald Kakoza Mutale.24 The KAP was allegedly created as part of Museveni’s election strategy, and during the 2001 campaign, members of the KAP committed arbitrary arrests, detained people without legal authority, and committed violent attacks, according to reports in both government and independent newspapers based in Kampala, and eyewitness testimony to Human Rights Watch.25 A similar organization operating in Gulu municipality is locally known as the Labeca (also spelled Labeja) group.26

Operation Wembley, a specially constituted crime-fighting security structure, since replaced by the Violent Crime Crack Unit (see further below).

The proliferation of agencies which detain suspects in ungazetted locations without legal authorization makes it hard to locate a person who might have been arrested, and difficult to hold the government accountable. Although the regular police are accused of torture of ordinary criminal suspects, it is the army and these other security units, some of them created without statutory authority, that are primarily responsible for torture in political cases.

1 See Human Rights Watch, “Uganda: Not A Level Playing Field—Government Violations in the Lead-Up To The Election,” February 1, 2001. The presidential election results were declared on March 14, 2001. Both Museveni and Besigye were running on the Movement platform; the four other candidates, none of whom received as much as 2 percent of the votes cast, advocated multipartyism.

2 Reasons for Judgments of Justices of the Supreme Court, Republic of Uganda, Election Petition No. 1 for 2001 between Col. (Rtd) Dr. Besigye Kizza, petitioner, and Museveni Yoweri Kaguta/Electoral Commission, respondents (M/s Kampala Law Report: Kampala, 2001) (“Reasons for Judgments…”).

3 See Human Rights Watch, Hostile to Democracy (Human Rights Watch: New York, August 1999).

4 The Supreme Court of Uganda dismissed the electoral petition on April 21, 2001, by majority decision, and declared that the respondent Museveni Yoweri Kaguta had been validly elected president of the Republic of Uganda in the election held on March 12, 2001. Reasons for Judgment of Oder, JSC.

5 Reasons for Judgment of Odoki, CJ.

6 Penal Code of Uganda, sections 25, 27 (act of 1970).

7 Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), “The Human Rights Report, 2001-2002” (Kampala: FHRI, April 2003), p. 30.

8 Human Rights Watch interview with criminal defense attorney, Kampala, June 16, 2003.

9 The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) commented on the terrorism law in its draft stages, and succeeded in convincing parliament to change some of the wording, but not these provisions. UHRC, Annual Report, January 2001-September 2002 (Kampala: UHRC, 2002), p. 52, table 3.1.

10 The death penalty is applicable as a punishment for fifteen separate offences (Penal Code Cap. 106), and a mandatory punishment for six offences (defilement, rape, aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping, murder, and treason). FHRI, “Human Rights Reporter,” p. 11. Uganda has not ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

11 FHRI, “Human Rights Reporter,” p. 12. Luzira Prison is the only institution for housing those condemned to death, according to prison officials. At the time of the Human Rights Watch visit, it housed 772 convicted persons, 399 condemned persons, and 1,195 persons on remand. These numbers were as of June 9, 2003, as indicated on a blackboard in the prison administrator’s office at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit.

12 Although no known executions were done in 2001, two Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers were executed on March 25, 2002, after a hasty eight-man field court martial for the murder on March 22, 2002, of Rev. Declan O’Toole (Irish) and his two Ugandan associates, Patrick Longoli and Fidele Longole. On March 5, 2003, almost one year later, three UPDF soldiers were found guilty of the murder of a Catholic priest and were executed by firing squad after a court martial found them guilty. UHRC, Press Statement, in Annual Report, appendix 6, pp. 126-27; FHRI, “Human Rights Reporter,” pp. 12-13. According to FHRI, a constitutional petition challenging the hastiness of the trial and the constitutionality of the death penalty was heard and dismissed. Ibid.

13 FHRI, “Human Rights Reporter,” p. 11, fn. 5.

14 Amnesty Act, 2000, Part II.

15 Human Rights Watch interviewed one man, a former 1999 ADF abductee turned ADF soldier until his capture by the UPDF. Then he helped the UPDF track down his former ADF comrades. Immediately after this UPDF operation, he was taken to Fort Portal, where he requested amnesty forms but he was told that the forms were out of stock. Instead, he was taken to court and then remanded to Katojo prison in September 2001, where he was seven months later when Human Rights Watch/FHRI interviewed him. Human Rights Watch interview, Katojo Prison, Uganda, April 2002.

16 “List of Prison Cases Submitted to DPP and their Status as of 7/01/2003,” Kampala, received June 12, 2003.

17 Human Rights Watch interview, Veronica Eragu Bichetero, Commissioner, Uganda Human Rights Commission, Kampala, June 13, 2003.

18 Peter Mukidi Walubiri, “A Human Rights Audit of Operation Wembley,” August 31, 2002, p. 10. The report was presented to a conference entitled, “A Workshop on Human Rights Standards and Constitutional Rights of Suspects Apprehended Under Operation Wembley: A Legal Audit,” organized by the Uganda Law Society in conjunction with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Kampala.

19 Uganda Constitution, article 209:

The functions of the Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces are -
(a) to preserve and defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uganda;
(b) to co-operate with the civilian authority in emergency situations and in cases of natural disasters;
(c) to foster harmony and understanding between the Defence Forces and civilians; and
(d) to engage in productive activities for the development of Uganda.

20 It is unlikely that the UPDF will ever be granted the power of detention, for historical reasons: the regime of Idi Amin enacted legislation extending powers of arrest (and detention) of civilians to the armed forces and the military police. Justice Resources, “Beyond Workshops: Challenges and Strategies in Human Rights Interventions in Uganda,” Kampala, May 2003, p. 7.

21 The Commission cited several provisions of the constitution and NRA Statute, noting that under section 45 of the NRA Statute a person under military law who “unlawfully detains any other person in arrest or confinement, or unnecessarily detains any other person without bringing him to trial, or fails to bring that other person’s case before the proper authority for investigation; commits an offence and shall on conviction be liable to imprisonment not exceeding 10 years.” Decision, Stephen Gidudu, complainant, and Attorney General, respondent, UHRC at Kampala, February 26, 2003.

22 Ibid.

23 See Human Rights Watch, Abducted and Abused: the Resurgence of War in Northern Uganda (Human Rights Watch: New York, 2003).

24 See Kalangala Action Plan, ibid., pp. 6, 45, 49.

25 David Kibirige, “Museveni ‘Leader’ of Kalangala Action Plan,” The Monitor (Kampala), March 7, 2002; Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, “Mutale’s Man Raid EU Offices,” The Monitor (Kampala), December 19, 2002; Richard Mutumba, “State House Doesn’t Fund Mutale’s KAP,” New Vision (Kampala), June 21, 2002; “Mutale’s KAP is a Time Bomb,” The Monitor (Kampala), June 20, 2002; Jacob L. Oulanyah, MP, Omoro County, Gulu, June 16, 2003. Although Kizza Besigye alleged, in his petition challenging the 2001 presidential election results, that the KAP had committed abuses during the elections, the evidence provided regarding KAP was much less detailed than the evidence provided on the role of the UPDF and other organizations. The Supreme Court did not make any finding against the KAP.

26 Human Rights Watch, Abducted and Abused, pp. 6, 49-51.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

April 2004