Ugandan police have arbitrarily arrested political opposition leaders and used excessive force to disperse peaceful political gatherings, hindering the ability of Ugandans to receive information and engage with politicians in the lead-up to elections, a new Amnesty International report launched in Kampala today has found.
Based on 88 interviews including with torture victims, eyewitnesses and senior police officers, as well as analysis of video footage, the report, “We come in and disperse them”: Violations of the right to freedom of assembly by the Ugandan police, documents a range of human right violations between July and October 2015. Members of the political opposition, including their presidential candidates, have been repeatedly placed under “preventive arrest” and police have indiscriminately fired tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators.
“All Ugandans must be free to attend political rallies and engage with candidates, regardless of their political affiliations,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
“The Ugandan authorities must put an immediate end to the harassment and torture of political opponents and urgently, thoroughly and transparently investigate the use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators. Anyone found responsible for these violations must be brought to justice.”
With elections due to be held on 18 February 2016, in which President Museveni will seek a fifth term in office, the arrests of political opposition politicians have restricted their ability to engage with voters.
As parliamentary campaigns launch on 7 December, Amnesty International is urging the Ugandan government to publish guidelines on policing assemblies, including the use of tear gas, which meet international standards.
On 9 July two leading political opposition presidential candidates – Kizza Besigye and former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi – were put under “preventive arrest.” Although they were released on the same day, their arrests prevented them from holding planned consultations with voters.
At the time of their arrests, they were in talks with other political leaders to form an umbrella group known as The Democratic Alliance (TDA) under which they planned to field one joint candidate to face President Yoweri Museveni at the polls.
On 10 July, seven members of the TDA youth wing were arrested at the end of a press conference in Kampala called to protest the arrests of Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi.
Six days later, Vincent Kaggwa, the spokesman for a group allied to Amama Mbabazi, was arrested in Kampala, and held incommunicado for four days. The police refused to disclose his whereabouts to his wife for the duration of his detention. When he was eventually released, he said police had ordered him to undress and sprayed him with high-pressure cold water from a hose pipe directed at his lower abdomen, causing him intense pain. Amnesty International considers that Vincent Kaggwa was subjected to enforced disappearance and torture.
Amama Mbabazi’s head of security, Christopher Aine, was arrested in Kampala on 14 September. He claims to have been hit with iron bars and canes while in detention. When Amnesty International interviewed him on the day after his release, his body was covered in cuts and bruises and showed evidence of torture.
Kizza Besigye was stopped by police when he tried to travel to Rukungiri in Western Uganda on 10 October and members of his team were arrested. One woman, Fatuma Zainab, was dragged along the ground by police officers until her clothes started coming off.
The police have frequently used excessive force to break up political gatherings organized by political opposition parties. A video obtained by Amnesty International shows police hurling tear gas canisters and indiscriminately firing rubber bullets into a peaceful crowd in the town of Soroti.
To justify their abusive activities, the police cite the Public Order Management Act, a controversial law that imposes wide-ranging restrictions on public meetings, including the requirement that organizers notify the police in advance.
Under international law, the right to freedom of assembly is so important that authorities should not use excessive force to break up peaceful assemblies even if they consider them to be unlawful.
“Peaceful gatherings should be allowed to take place unhindered and the use of force against people attending them cannot be tolerated. Attempts by police to justify their actions are disturbing and unacceptable,” said Muthoni Wanyeki.
“The authorities must take action to rein in the police in the run up to the elections and ensure that their actions conform to both national and international standards.”