Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone

March 16, 1999

Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone

In practice the police have found that when soldiers or other security officers make arrests, the lack of information about an alleged offence given to the police can make it difficult for a charge to be brought in the correct manner. In May 1997 a police officer discreetly drew Amnesty International's attention to procedural shortcomings in military investigations:

"Sometimes the army does a preliminary investigation opening a case file. But we get other cases just brought to us. If there is a case file, we find they have used "different" means of investigation. Sometimes it is not clear whether the case warrants investigation. Sometimes we start to fill in the gaps to see if the case can be pursued. The military are not trained to investigate".

Sometimes, the police said, soldiers are unable (or unwilling) even to give a statement about why a person brought to the police has been arrested. Junior police officers can feel under considerable pressure from the soldiers to continue to hold prisoners without charge beyond the 48 hour time limit. In the words of a senior court official interviewed in May 1998, "there are problems in the quality of evidence from soldiers".

Recognition by the police, the courts and the army of the problem of the quality of evidence collected by soldiers led to changes in procedure in 1997. These appear to have reduced (but by no means eliminated) the number of cases where the police have found prisoners suspected of both political crimes and human rights violations effectively dumped on them with minimal information. According to the police, regular meetings between themselves and the army have been instituted where, among other issues, the handling of criminal suspects is discussed [57]. Soldiers have been informed that they have to make statements when handing over suspects to the police -- and that failure by soldiers to do this should be raised with the PRO [58].

However, the power of the army means that police officers are still intimidated by soldiers. The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) found a number of people detained in Gulu Police Station in 1997 who had been brought to the police on suspicion they were LRA members:

"The arresting soldiers tended to leave without recording statements or leaving their contact address. Such people then remained in detention in the police station. Although they did not openly admit to it, the police appeared to keep their suspects in detention for fear of annoying the UPDF. They could not take the detainees to court because they had no facts on which to base a charge".

Cases included Olobo Orach, arrested by the army on 13 April 1997 and brought to Gulu Police Station on 13 May 1997 as a "suspected rebel". The UHRC found him in police cells in June, still detained without charge [59]. When in May 1998 Amnesty International looked at police records of persons charged, the organization did not find his name. It is not clear, however, what happened to him.

Arrests by police officers

Despite their training in criminal investigation, the police themselves also often make an arrest as the first step and supposedly preliminary investigation only afterwards. Further, the police do not always receive sufficient cooperation from the armed forces to make it possible for them to carry out investigations effectively. The police rely on the army for transport and protection. In Gulu the police have only one vehicle. If they are to investigate an incident that has taken place beyond the municipality limits they need the cooperation of the army. Military and police priorities do not always coincide and the police may not get transport and protection when they need it. Especially where the police are investigating alleged human rights violations by soldiers, loyalty within the unit may mean that they do not get information from other soldiers. When incidents have taken place out on patrol, other soldiers are likely to be key witnesses. Human rights violations committed in these situations do not often end in arrests (let alone prosecutions).