Uganda Peoples Congress

US fingers Uganda government over rights abuses, killings

From THE EAST AFRICAN, March 20, 2006


A new report by the US Department of State criticises the government for clamping down on opposition groups, the media and individuals, especially in the run-up to last year's constitutional amendment that lifted term limits.

Extrajudicial killings by security agents, the unending war in the north of the country and oppression of political opponents continue to give Uganda a poor human-rights record, the US Department of State has said in its latest report.

The report, released by the Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour on March 8, covers events in 2005, highlight several human-rights violations attributed to state institutions and operatives, and assesses the political environment in the country ahead of last month's first multiparty elections in 25 years, which President Yoweri Museveni won by 59 per cent to opposition leader Kizza Besigye's 37 per cent.

The State Department report notes: "The government's human-rights record remained poor; although there were some improvements in a few areas, serious problems remained."

Uganda's Internal Affairs Minister Dr Ruhakana Rugunda, however, defended his government's human-rights record, and the fairness of the political transition to multiparty politics.

"The ground was as level as it can be in our circumstances," Dr Rugunda told The EastAfrican on Friday.

Some of the problems highlighted in the report are: restrictions on opposition party activity, unlawful killings by security forces, disappearances of people, harsh prison conditions, as well as security forces' use of torture and abuse of suspects.

Other human-rights violations noted in the report include mob justice, official impunity, restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, association and assembly, abuse of internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as the arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, and lengthy pre-trial detention of suspects, many of whom were denied their rights to a fair trial.

The report attributes a lot of the human- rights violations in the north of the country to the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels led by Joseph Kony, who "committed numerous, serious abuses and atrocities, including the abduction, rape, maiming, and killing of civilians, including children."

However, it adds, "Security forces tortured and abused civilians suspected of collaborating with the LRA; however, unlike in previous years, there were no reports that security forces killed suspected collaborators. UPDF soldiers reportedly tortured suspected rebels and raped civilians living in IDP camps."

The State Department report notes that, "UPDF protected civilians against the LRA but was unable to end the war." UPDF spokesman Maj Felix Kulayigye told The EastAfrican that the allegations in the report were "inaccurate" and that the army "does not have a policy of torture."

"We've been merciless with our personnel who carry out torture, precisely because we abhor human-rights violations. We started our war because we wanted to eliminate rights violations by state officials and institutions," said the spokesman.

"There might be isolated incidents of individuals who might be overzealous [and torture people] but that can't be taken to be our policy," Maj Kulayigye added. "We have executed soldiers who are convicted of human rights abuses," he added.

The report criticises the government for clamping down on opposition groups and individuals, especially in the run-up to last year's constitutional amendment that lifted term limits and allowed President Museveni to stand for another term of office.

In particular, the report points to a March 29, 2005 directive by Rugunda, which banned all demonstrations related to parliament's efforts to eliminate the presidential term limits.

"On March 31, police in Kampala enforced Rugunda's ban by breaking up a protest opposing the elimination of term limits. The police fired teargas canisters and water cannons to disperse the protesters and arrested 17 persons," the report notes about one of several demonstrations broken up.

Ugandans voted, in a July 28, 2005 referendum to return to a multiparty political system but the State Department report says: "Police denied permission to hold public rallies to several opposition political groups during the year, blocked public meetings organised by opposition parties, and, on several occasions, disrupted or forcibly dispersed opposition meetings and other events."

Dr Rugunda, whose docket includes the police and prisons services, denied restricting the activities of opposition groups and individuals.

"It is true there were demonstrations for and against the third term (for President Museveni). We did say that these repeated demonstrations have an adverse effect on the economy and business and we said there are many other ways in which people can express their views; so we said let us advise against demonstrations but let us continue the debate. In my view it was a timely decision at the time," said Dr Rugunda.

The Internal Affairs Minister also defended his decision to ban demonstrations against the arrest and trial of opposition leader Besigye in November on rape, treason and terrorism charges.

"We were saying; the case of Kizza Besigye is in the courts of law and we should not prejudice the case; we should let the courts of law act without any undue pressures from anybody," said the minister. "It was, in fact, protection of the law and the independence of the judiciary."

The State Department report is also particularly stinging about government's restrictions - both subtle and direct - on the Ugandan media. It notes that while Ugandan law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the government often restricted these rights. The report is critical of media laws that criminalise journalism offences and says these "limited the media's ability to function effectively."

The report notes: "The government at times harassed and intimidated journalists and journalists continued to practice self-censorship."

"The government made several statements that encouraged self censorship," notes the report. "On August 10, President Museveni publicly claimed several journalists irresponsibly disregarded national security interests in the course of their reporting. In the same speech, Museveni threatened to arrest journalists and close down media outlets that continued this pattern of irresponsible journalism.

"The Minister of State for Information, Nsaba Buturo, reminded journalists during the year that even when facts were true, their reporting must be informed by an imperative to preserve national interests," adds the report.

Some of the instances in which government violated press freedom include the August 11, 2005 closure, for a week, of the independent KFM radio station on the grounds that it breached a national security provision in the Electronic Media Act. KFM, a sister operation of Monitor Publications Ltd, is owned by Nation Media Group, which also publishes The EastAfrican.

"On November 23, Minister Buturo announced a new ban on media coverage of the trial of opposition leader Kizza Besigye. Buturo said the Media Council would revoke the license of any media outlet that provided a forum for discussion or debate on the trial," adds the report.

The report is also critical of the government's decision to lock journalists out of the High Court premises when opposition leader Besigye was re-apprehended on orders from the Military Court Martial after being granted bail by the High Court, and the arrest and prosecution of critical journalists, citing national security.

The US State Department mentions "credible reports that security forces and some government officials provided material support to armed groups operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo" where militia fighting resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

It also notes that corruption continued to be a major problem and that "despite credible evidence of wrongdoing, there were no prosecutions of senior officials accused of corruption."