In accordance with Article 52 (2) of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, the Uganda Human Rights Commission is mandated to publish periodic reports on its findings and submit annual reports to Parliament on the state of human rights and freedoms in the country. Therefore, in fulfilment of this mandate, the Uganda Human Rights Commission presented its 24th Annual Report to Parliament. This report comprises 12 chapters dedicated to the general thematic issues and areas that the Uganda Human Rights Commission monitored during the year 2021 but however, our focus for this space is Chapter 5 that looks at the enforced disappearances of people in Uganda.
The period leading to and after the 2021 general elections was characterised by a wave of alleged cases of enforced disappearances of people allegedly arrested by security agencies and taken to unknown detention places.
We intend to examine the human rights concerns arising out of the enforced disappearance of persons and highlight interventions made by both state and non-state actors on the subject matter.
In 2021, the media was awash with reports of missing persons in Uganda. There were allegations of missing persons who were allegedly picked from their respective homes, workplaces and off streets by persons believed to be security agents. Media reports also reported that the arrested people were allegedly put in vans commonly known as ‘drones’ which had no number plates and taken to unknown places.
Following the various media reports on missing persons, the President gave a televised address on 13 February 2021, in which he informed the country that security agencies had been arresting suspected criminals to avert terrorism and lawlessness in the country. The President informed the nation that the Special Forces Command (SFC) had arrested 76 people in Kampala, while the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) had arrested 242 suspects. He further stated that out of 242 suspects arrested by CMI, 177 had been granted bail or released, and 65 were still under investigation.
The president then emphasised that “…the talk of disappearances should be ignored because it can’t happen under the NRM. We never cover-up. There is nothing which we do and hide…’’
Subsequently, on 4 March 2021, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Hon. Jeje Odongo presented to Parliament a list of 177 people who were allegedly missing. Members of Parliament, especially from the National Unity Platform (NUP), questioned the list’s authenticity. Contrary to the Minister’s list, National Unity Platform Party President Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu said that at least 458 people were missing, and their whereabouts were unknown. However, a list published in the media by NUP had only 334 missing persons.
From the government list, it was ascertained that those allegedly missing were scheduled to appear before various courts while others were in detention at Kitalya Mini Maxi prison, as detailed Complaints of alleged cases of enforced disappearance received by UHRC.
In 2021, the UHRC received 69 complaints of alleged enforced disappearance for further investigations. The majority of the complaints were received by the UHRC’s central regional office totaling 51 complaints, while 18 were received by the Masaka Regional Office arising from Kyotera District.
64 were released upon UHRC intervention, while five (three male and two female) were alleged to be missing by the time this report was compiled.
HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS
Arbitrary arrest and detention
Article 23 of the Constitution provides that a person arrested, restricted or detained shall be informed immediately in a language that the person understands of the reasons for the arrest, restriction or detention and his or her right to a lawyer of their choice. An arrested person that is not released earlier should be brought to court as soon as possible, but in any case, not later than 48 hours from the time of their arrest.
Victims of alleged enforced disappearances were allegedly arrested without being told the reason for their arrest, kept in ungazetted detention facilities, denied access to legal representation, and were not produced before any court or subjected to any judicial process. There were also allegations of over detention beyond the mandatory 48 hours before release.168 Although the right to personal liberty is not absolute as provided for, under the Constitution, the act of arbitrary arrest and detention contravenes the human rights standards on limitation of rights, which requires that the limitation be lawful, necessary, reasonable, acceptable proportional to the threat.
Freedom from torture and ill-treatment
Enforced disappearance and torture are inextricably connected acts.169 Article 24 of the Constitution and the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act 2012 (PPTA) prohibit acts of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Specifically, Article 44 of the Constitution makes freedom from torture a non-derogable right. However, despite these legal provisions, the use of torture still exists. There were allegations of physical and psychological torture, in media reports showing injuries and wounds on the victim’s bodies, reportedly sustained due to torture.
Deprivation of the right to a fair and speedy hearing
The right to a fair and speedy hearing is a non-derogable right which cannot be derogated from, even during a time of emergency. It is provided for under Articles 28 and 44 of the Constitution. It affords an accused person the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty170 and to be informed of the nature of the offence in a language they understand. The accused person is also entitled to a fair, speedy and public hearing before an independent and impartial court or tribunal.
The practice of enforced disappearances does not accord the victim the right to a fair and speedy hearing since victims are kept outside the protection of the law. Some of the victims reported that they were not produced before courts of law. There were also media reports that some victims were driven by the alleged perpetrators and dumped at night on the roadside or forests in the following districts: Masaka (Kivuvu, Kyabadaza, Kiwala and Mbalala), Mpigi (Mbizinya, Buwama), Wakiso (Nansana, Kakiri), and Kyotera. The right to an order of Habeas Corpus was also not respected despite rulings by the High Court (for example, the case of Ddamulira John, in which the High Court issued two orders without any positive result).
Denial of access to the outside world and family members
Alleged cases of enforced disappearance deprive the victim’s access to the outside world, including their family members. There were reports that victims did not know which part(s) of the country they were detained and in some cases were not allowed to physically see those they were detained with in the same facility or those detaining them. This was contrary to the rights of suspects in detention facilities.
Access to medical care and treatment
The right to health means that everyone has the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including access to all medical services, sanitation, adequate food, decent housing, healthy working conditions and a clean environment.172 Victims of enforced disappearances face challenges in accessing medical care and treatment, thus an infringement on their rights.
Interventions by various state and non-state actors;
The oversight role of Parliament
Following numerous media reports on increasing cases of enforced disappearances and the President’s directive to all agencies to make the list of missing persons public, on 4 March 2021, the Speaker of Parliament tasked the Minister of Internal Affairs to table the list of all missing persons in the country. On the same day, the Minister of Internal Affairs, the then Hon. Jeje Odongo presented to Parliament a list of 177 names of missing persons he said were in detention following their arrest during and after the January 2021 elections.173 Out of the 680 names on the NUP list to Parliament, 71 had appeared on the government list, and the government acknowledged only 242 arrests. According to the Minister, 43 persons were arrested for participating in the 18-19 November 2020 riots and 156 were arrested from meetings planning post-election violence, while six were released on police bond.
2. UHRC’s intervention
Complaint receipt and investigations into cases of alleged enforced disappearances
UHRC is mandated to receive and investigate complaints at its own initiative or on a complaint made by any person or group of persons against a violation of any human right. 174 As such, UHRC received and conducted investigations into 69 complaints involving cases of alleged enforced disappearance. Of the 69 complaints registered, 42 were initiated by the central regional office due to media reports. As a result of UHRC intervention, 64 people were released, comprising 18 from Kyotera under the Masaka regional office and 46 under the central regional office. Further investigations into these complaints are ongoing to ensure that victims get justice.
Referral for medical treatment to the African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (ACTV)
UHRC made referrals specifically for medical examination and treatment of victims of enforced disappearances to ACTV. This was for those alleged to have been subjected to torture, causing both physical and psychological suffering during arrest and incommunicado detention. A total of 20 victims were referred to ACTV for treatment.
Referral to Uganda Police Force and High Court
UHRC engaged with the Uganda Police Force to determine the whereabouts of missing persons. Families of victims were also advised to obtain orders of habeas corpus from the courts of law (for example, the case of Damulira John, though it bore no fruit 175). The Commission has not received any updates from the Police on the progress of their efforts in tracing the victims who are still missing.
Inspection of places of detention
UHRC, through its constitutional mandate, conducted inspections of places of detention to establish whether, indeed, the persons allegedly missing were kept in any of the gazetted detention places. Inspections were conducted at Kitalya Mini Maxi prison; however, UHRC established that some victims who were alleged to be missing were actually in detention. A total of 32 victims, as earlier indicated by Hon. Rtd Jeje Odongo were actually detained at Kitalya Mini Maxi prison. UHRC also noted that the inmates’ rights while in detention were being adhered to by the detaining authority.
Interventions by non-state actors
- Advocacy to end acts of enforced disappearance The UN Independent Human Rights Experts on the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary disappearances condemned the act of enforced disappearances that happened in Uganda before and after the elections. One advocate stated, “We are urging the Government of Uganda to take all necessary measures to immediately stop the concealing of information concerning individuals arrested in the general elections, a practice amounting to enforced disappearance, and reveal their fate and whereabouts.”
- To ensure access to justice for victims of enforced disappearances, the Legal Aid Service Provider’s Network (LASPNET), together with Avocats Sans Frontiers and the then Chapter Four Uganda, issued a statement on 16th March 2021 in which the government was called upon to account for the exact number of victims of the enforced disappearances since the statistics on both the side of government and opposition politicians remained scanty. LASPNET further issued an opinion article and public notice both in English and Luganda, which were published in the New Vision and Bukedde newspapers, respectively calling upon the public to report incidences of enforced disappearances through the LASPNET toll-free line (0800 200155) as well as its member organizations such as Uganda Law Society (ULS) and Justice Centers Uganda (JCU). As a result, LASPNET recorded five cases that were supported through their call center, rapid legal response and member organisations.
RECOMMENDATIONS from UHRC
- The Ugandan Government should ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
- Security agencies should ensure effective and efficient enforcement and implementation of the existing legal provisions, such as the Human Rights Enforcement Act, 2019 and the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act, 2012, among others, to ensure the protection of fundamental human rights.
- The Ugandan Government should expeditiously enact specific legislation on witness protection and expedite the enactment of the Legal Aid Bill into law.
- The Uganda Police force should investigate all cases of enforced disappearances and ensure that perpetrators are brought to book and victims get justice.
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