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

This case again shows the police's use of torture as a method of investigation. This method is both illegal and flawed: the elderly lady was innocent" [62].

The police appear to have developed a culture that accepts torture and ill-treatment as conventional investigatory practices. This is illustrated by the failure to arrest police officers alleged to be responsible for beating suspects in their custody. None of the police officers who beat Onek Jackson were brought to justice. In July 1997 the UHRC brought the beating of Atabi Charles to the attention of senior police officers in Gulu who promised that the policemen responsible would face "disciplinary action". However, Amnesty International could find no record of criminal charges being brought against the police officers when the organization inspected police records in May 1998. While other disciplinary action may have been taken, the failure to bring criminal charges suggests the incident was taken lightly.

Indeed, the police's own records show that between January 1996 and April 1998 only three police officers were charged for serious crimes against the person. One was charged with the murder of Otoo Santo at Lala Obara in Bobi in early 1996 after a complaint by ISO personnel. The case was later dismissed for lack of evidence. In January 1998 two police constables were charged with rape. The two men were on remand when Amnesty International visited Gulu in May 1998. Over the same period there were dozens of incidents in which police officers beat up criminal suspects. Not one officer has been brought to justice.

The failure to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of torture is in contravention of Uganda's obligations under the Convention against Torture.

5.4 Delayed prosecutions and trial

The third set of reasons for de facto impunity for soldiers is found at the stage of prosecution and trial of defendants accused of serious crimes. These include the lack of a State Attorney and serious problems surrounding witnesses.

In cases of serious crime the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) is responsible for the decision whether to prosecute. The sufficiency of evidence is an obvious and important factor in deciding to proceed. If there is not sufficient evidence (s)he may withdraw charges or direct the police to collect further evidence. The Resident State Attorney, a professional public prosecutor, is the DPP's legal officer in the district.

Since the death of the last incumbent in late 1996, Gulu has not had a Resident State Attorney. This has caused significant delays in the prosecution of soldiers accused of serious crimes and of civilians accused of political offences.

The absence of a Resident State Attorney in Gulu means that case files have to be transferred from Gulu to Kampala. This is not only time-consuming but reduces the DPP's on-site ability to ensure that the police are collecting sufficient evidence to support the prosecution. In turn this results in major delays in the preparation of cases -- above and beyond the delays caused by the problems that the police already face in the collection of evidence, described above. Furthermore, those arbitrarily detained have to remain in custody for long periods pending a decision on whether they should be prosecuted or released for lack of evidence.

The State Attorney is responsible for handling prosecutions of serious cases before the High Court and the Chief Magistrate's Court. Shortages of staff in the DPP's office mean that less serious cases in lower level Magistrate's Courts are usually prosecuted by police officers (who are often poorly trained in prosecution) [63]. Police officers acting as prosecutors may not act independently in cases involving their colleagues as accused, witnesses or complainants. The blunt fact is that if there is no State Attorney the trial of soldiers accused of serious human rights violations (eg soldiers charged with murder, rape and defilement) or of civilians accused of serious political offences (eg treason, misprison of treason and terrorism) cannot proceed [64].