Uganda: Human rights violations by the National Resistance Army

December 3, 1991

Uganda: Human rights violations by the National Resistance Army

Between March and July 1991 the NRA mounted a major counter-insurgency operation against insurgents of the United Democratic Christian Army (UDCA) in the northern Districts of Gulu, Kitgum, Lira and Apac. On 27 March 1991 the NRA closed roads leading into northern Uganda and seized all radio communications equipment not held by the army, effectively severing the north from the rest of the country. A series of operations described locally as "cordon-and-search" operations were then organized in order to "screen" the civilian population for the presence of rebels. The "screening" involved a variety of checks on identity and domicile and being paraded before former insurgents now working with the government. There were reports that troops were responsible for human rights violations during the course of the "screening" exercise, with allegations of extrajudicial execution, rape, beating and arbitrary arrest. Thousands of people were detained during the operation, the majority for brief periods while they were "screened", but several hundred others were held for longer periods in military barracks in Gulu and Lira. In an effort apparently to demonstrate the effectiveness of the whole operation, Major-General David Tinyefuza, the Minister of State for Defence, who personally supervised it, is reported to have announced in early April 1991 that rebels arrested during the operation would be charged with treason.

3. Prisoners of Conscience

On 7 May 1991 18 prominent citizens from northern Uganda, among them Omara Atubo, who was then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and Andrew Adimola, the Vice-President of the Democratic Party (DP), were charged with treason in the Chief Magistrate's Court in Kampala. They had been arrested in Gulu, Kitgum and Kampala on various dates between the end of March and the middle of April 1991. After their arrest the 18 were held illegally without charge or trial in military barracks in Gulu and Lira before being transferred to Kampala. On the morning of 7 May they were flown to Kampala from a military barracks in Lira. Before they flew, however, they were ill-treated by being beaten and forced to do physical exercises and they appeared in a shocked courtroom looking bruised and dishevelled. After being remanded in custody, they were imprisoned at Luzira Upper Prison near Kampala.

The treason charge, which under Ugandan law precludes the granting of bail for 480 days, was so vague that it did not appear to justify the continuing detention of the 18: in particular it did not specify the dates, location or nature of the treasonable acts that they were alleged to have committed. On 12 August 1991, in response to an action by defence lawyers, the High Court ruled that the charge was defective but refused to dismiss it on the basis that "the discharge of the accused persons will only expose them to another arrest". By giving this ruling the court appeared to be condoning arbitrary detention and thus undermining the rule of law. The judge did urge the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to supply the necessary details under-pinning the charge but failed to set a time limit for the DPP to comply.

Amnesty International believes that the 18 were detained for reasons other than treasonable activity, reasons which include the investigation of alleged embezzlement of public funds, local power struggles at District level, opposition to NRA actions in the north and consequent criticisms of government policy. The organization is concerned that treason is being used as a holding charge in the absence of any evidence that could lead to the conviction of the 18, or even justify their prosecution. One of the 18 was released on bail on grounds of poor health in June 1991. Amnesty International has adopted all 17 who remain in custody as prisoners of conscience.

3.1 Prisoners of Conscience from Gulu