Torture Victim, Samuel Masereka – the NUP District Coordinator for Kasese showing wounds obtained during state detention. Photo Credit: Chimp reports.

The recent account of Kakwenza Rukirabaishaija’s torture ordeal in State custody, has intensified public debate on whether illegal detention and torture in Uganda is institutionalized or rather isolated actions of some errant officers within the security forces.

Kakwenza has written, tweeted and narrated his own experience with the security forces in Uganda. The author’s account is one of many testimonies by survivors of torture in Uganda, that casts doubt on the familiar claim that the government does not condone torture. Further more, the public record shows that security agencies continue to operate detention facilities within the country, despite reports of rights violation in these ungazetted places.

On 28th August 2019, while appearing before the Human rights committee of the 10th Parliament then chaired by Hon. Egunyu Nantume Janepher, the former Security Minister, Gen. Elly Tumwine confirmed the existence of “safe houses”. These are operated in different locations in Uganda, although the Minister was quick to deny that these were not sites for illegal detention and torture.

The Minister had been invited by the parliamentary committee, as part of investigations into reports of illegal detention and torture of civilians in ungazetted centres.

Wizarts Foundation covered this inquiry for the Our Parliament radio programme, funded by the Democratic Governance Facility (GDF). Revisiting the coverage of this story in light of Kakwenza’s harrowing account of torture, brings back to light Mr. Fred Baguma’s account, who we (Wizarts Foundation) interviewed for this story in his capacity as the Chairperson of the Torture Survivors Association of Uganda. Mr. Baguma claimed three in every four members of his association had been tortured in safe houses.

This claim corroborates other accounts of tourture by survivors including Kakwenza. Despite this, government consistently asserts that it does not condone torture. The denial by the State creates controversy around the issue, making this story newsworthy and an item for media coverage and public consumption. Journalists around the world are trained to identify news by the conflicting viewpoints evident a story such as this one.

Additionally journalists have a duty to expose state excesses, therefore media reports on human rights abuse seek to strengthen citizens effort to hold government accountable. This is why the work of human rights committee attracts media attention.

Key sources for this story included news reports published particularly by NBS TV and NTV as well as interviews with the Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the 10th Parliament, Hon. Betty Aol Ocan and the Asst. Commissioner for National Guidance, Jonah Jackson Bakalikwira. The choice of interviewing the LoP was influenced by her outspokeness against torture and the authority of her office, lending credence to her assertion that safe houses were sites for torture and therefore illegal.

For Mr. Bakalikwira the choice was to tell a balanced story and give government the right of response on the accusations levelled against it. As such, he spoke from a government perspective: explicitly condemning acts of tourture and illegal detention while implicitly avoiding pronouncing himself on the legal status of safe houses in the country.

The report by the Committee on Human Rights was adopted by the House, despite the legislators being denied access to safe houses and therefore unable to verify the accounts of torture. In addition to failing to establish the veracity of conflicting accounts about torture in safe houses, the Human Rights Committee in its report did not adequately address the legal status of safe houses. The committee ultimmately relied on the Security Minister’s assertion that there was no law under which safe houses operate though neither is there a law that explicitly outlaws safe houses.

In such uncertainty, one would expect the Committee to recommend that this lacuna be addressed through a legislation, yet the Committee report was silent on this matter.

In essence, the Committee was only able to establish the existence of safe houses. However, given that the objective of the inquiry was not only to establish the existence of safe houses, but also verify the accounts of torture victims and the conditions in safe houses as well as the involvement of security agencies, the Human Rights Committee did not fulfill the objectives.

This episode raises concerns about Parliament’s capacity to check illegal detention and state impunity at the root of rights violations in safe houses. Indeed both retrospective and contemporary accounts by the media, as witness and public record, indicate that such questions are yet to be answered.

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