Human Rights Watch welcomes the Committee on Human Rights’ ongoing inquiry into “the state of human rights and alleged human rights violations in the country,” since January 2020 to date.
Human Rights Watch is an independent, non-profit, nongovernmental human rights organization. Each year, Human Rights Watch publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in more than 90 countries around the world. We use the findings of our investigations to advocate for changes in policy and practice that promote human rights and justice around the world.
This submission focuses on Human Rights Watch’s research findings and the March 2022 report on the unlawful detention of people in unauthorized places of detention in Uganda since 2020. It is based on research undertaken between April 2019 and November 2021, during which Human Rights Watch interviewed 51 people, including former detainees and witnesses of abduction-style detentions, as well as lawyers, government officials, members of parliament, opposition party members, diplomats, human rights activists, journalists, and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
A list of recommendations to this committee follows at the end of our submission.
Human Rights Watch found that for several weeks following widespread and sometimes violent protests on November 18 and 19, 2020, in Kampala and other parts of Uganda, security forces carried out a spate of arbitrary arrests and detentions of opposition supporters, government critics, and others for allegedly participating in the protests. Armed men, including police, soldiers, and other security agents in plainclothes, grabbed people up from the streets, their homes, or their workplaces and took them way in unmarked Toyota Hiace vans, locally known as “Drones.” The lawless manner in which these arbitrary detentions happened has led to them being referred to as “abductions”. However, there should be no doubt: these are not the random actions of a rogue cohort of criminals, but a deliberate practice carried out by the state apparatus, knowingly operating outside of the law. Indeed, security forces often engaged not just in arbitrary detention but enforced disappearances, by refusing to acknowledge that a person was in detention at all, or to say where they were detained and what would happen to them. Enforced disappearances, are for good reason prohibited at all times and criminalized under international law.
Human Rights Watch documented emblematic cases of people who were arbitrarily detained and held in unauthorized locations, for allegedly participating in protests or for supporting the opposition. Most were later released.
Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that after the security forces who detained them forced them into waiting “Drones”, they beat them, drove them to unknown locations and tortured them using sadistic methods, described below. Many other people were already detained in these unauthorized sites. In the case of one detainee accused of mobilizing people to vote for presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi, armed men removed his fingernails, broke one of his fingers, burned him with an iron, and pulled on his tongue before he lost consciousness.
Between December 21 and 23, 2020, men from a “commando” unit of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) rounded up at least 17 people in different parts Mukono district into waiting “Drones” and took them to an unknown location where they detained and interrogated them for at least three weeks. Some of the former detainees told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers tortured them by hitting them with batons and hammers and using pliers to pinch their skin; they removed the toenails of one detainee.
During the elections period, police and soldiers arrested and detained opposition members with little regard for due process. Human Rights Watch interviewed seven persons detained and beaten by soldiers, who also confiscated their possessions, searched them in dehumanizing ways, and allowed them little if any access to family members or lawyers. The authorities ignored their constitutional right to bail and held them in detention even after the courts granted them bail.
Human Rights Watch also documented the detention and torture of civilians in the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) headquarters in Mbuya in February 2021. Former detainees described sadistic interrogation methods they endured while being questioned about their support for opposition parties, including being made stand with their hands handcuffed and raised over their heads for prolonged periods while the soldiers kicked, beat and caned them; soldiers poured water on them, gave them electric shocks on their feet, and forced them to roll on the floor. The officers made some detainees wear red berets and raise their fists to depict the NUP insignia, and took pictures of them.
All the former detainees told us of the pain and challenges they endured in the months, and in some cases years, after their unlawful detention and torture. They have continued to experience surveillance and threats, yet their abusers have enjoyed impunity. Former detainees lost income while they were unlawfully detained, property confiscated by security officials at the time of their arrest were never returned, and all suffer chronic physical and mental health problems that stem from their time in arbitrary detention. Many of the detainees interviewed reported that even when they were released the stigma attached to former detainees made it difficult to find or maintain work. Injuries from the torture prevented some people from going back to work to earn an income. In addition, family members of current detainees are traumatized by not knowing the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones.
While some victims have sought and received support from NGOs, Human Rights Watch found that these organizations are also limited in the number of people they can help.
All the victims who spoke to Human Rights Watch expressed strong desire for their abusers to be held accountable.
Human Rights Watch respectfully urges the Committee to:
- Call on the government of Uganda to immediately close all unauthorized detention centers, and release all detainees held in such places. Anyone accused of criminal charges may be brought before a court to be charged if there is credible evidence. Any request by the prosecuting authorities to hold them in pre-trial detention, should be considered by the court in accordance with the law, bearing in mind that pre-trial detention should be an exceptional measure.
- Call on the Internal Security Organization, UPDF and other security agencies to immediately disclose the whereabouts of all victims of enforced disappearances and release them forthwith.
- Call on both the the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the UHRC to urgently investigate all credible allegations including enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture, including rape and other sexual violence.
- Call on the Uganda Human Rights Commission to undertake regular visits to ISO, UPDF, and any reported detention facilities to monitor detention conditions; and to order the release of detainees held in unauthorized detention facilities; or ensure they are brought promptly before a judge to have their rights protected.
- Carry out an in-depth assessment of the medical and psychological needs of victims of unlawful detention and torture and call on the government to ensure victims have access to remedies including compensation as well as medical and psychological care.
- Track and report on the government’s compliance and implementation of the Committee’s recommendations related to unlawful detention, including its February 2020 report on torture in ungazetted detention centres, which called, among other things for the authorities to investigate these abuses, compensate victims, and hold public officers personally criminally liable if they have violated or participated in the violation of a person’s rights or freedoms.