Ugandan author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija displays grisly scars inflicted on him by torture during state detention. [Photo Credit: Hajarah Nalwadda/AP]

On February 3 2022, a number of opposition legislators led by the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Hon. Mathias Mpuuga, walked out of the House.

This was in protest of government inaction in response to evidence of torture by State actors. The Leader of the Opposition requested the Deputy Speaker Rt. Hon. Anitah Among to suspend the House until the government presents a statement on the plight of citizens in State detention and have experienced torture.

These demands, from within Parliament,  for accountability for the torture of citizens in State custody, are not without precedent. In the 10th Parliament for example,the Speaker at the time, Rt. Hon Rebecca Kadaga instructed the Human Rights Committee of Parliament to investigate torture in Nalufenya, detention facility, and report back to the House. Reflecting on how we told this story, brings into view the challenges a majority NRM Parliament faces, in its attempts to check impunity.

The story we told focused on the report on the Human Rights committee following their visit to Nalufenya. The report found no evidence of torture, however a minority report authored by Hon. Anthony Akol, contradicted the findings of the main committee report. The story selection from an editorial perspective was informed by available documentation and the information on the public record. Both reports by the committee and the minority report were in the public domain, as was a recording of the debate on the floor of Parliament, on May 23rd 2017. Considering how much misinformation existed at the time on the issue, it was important for the editorial process to be led by verifiable sources rather than speculation. Thereafter the story sought to explain how the reports reached different and contrasting conclusions, in addition to exploring the implications of the reports, on Parliament’s capacity to check impunity and hold State actors accountable for human rights violations.

To this end, the story featured  interviews with Esther Nabwire, the Head of Program at the African Centre for Treatment & Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Hon. Obiga Kania, State Minister for Internal Affairs and his counterpart, Hon. Muwanga Kivumbi, Shadow Minister for Internal Affairs. This was in addition to the audio recording of the debate in the House and featured Hon. Jova Kamateeka, the Chair of the Human Rights Committee, Hon. Anthony Akol, author of the minority report, Hon. Abbas Mugisha, a member of the committee who visited Nalufenya.

The story presented selected audio recordings of the debate in the House, to highlight the sharp contrast in the findings. This is why immediately after Hon. Kamateeka is heard concluding that based on the accounts of detainees, no torture happened at Nalufenya, Hon. Akol is heard citing medical records of the detainees to conclude that they were victims of torture. In hindsight it would have been helpful to inquire from Hon. Kamateeka what she made of  the medical records. As important as the conclusions were their basis and justification.

Parliament’s record of protecting citizens from torture came into sharp focus in the story and to this end it was important to document the views of Esther Nabwire from an NGO, that provide relief for torture victims.Proximity to the victims of torture afforded Esther a unique perspective grounded in the experiences of torture victims. According to  Esther, Parliament was reactive, preferring to act after a case had drawn media attention. Additionally, Esther cited the Human Rights Committee ineffectiveness in influencing the government to ratify  the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. 

Criticism of the Human Rights committee also came from Hon. Akol, a fellow committee member and author of the minority report who suggested that the Hon. Kamateeka, the Committee Chair, was compromised given she was a member of the NRM party and as such was unable to hold State actors accountable. It was important to note this because the official narrative was that torture was not institutionalized but rather the consequence of rogue elements in the security forces. Hon. Kania Obiga’s interview reinforces the official narrative which is why it is included in the story. The remedies available to citizens is to hold individual officers implicated accountable using the Anti Torture Act. However, as Hon. Kivumbi, the Shadow Minister for Internal Affairs, counters there is little evidence that these rogue elements are held to account which lends credence to the view that their actions are supported institutionally.

On reflection, the story would have been more comprehensive had it explored the context for the shift to individual accountability as exemplified in the provisions of the Anti Corruption Act and whether or not in absolves those in command of institutions implicated in the torture of citizens. That said, the story is painfully still relevant and worth retelling as journalists and the media in general have a role to play in enhancing our collective understanding of impunity which is a precondition for citizen centered accountability.


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