By John Njoroge
In July 1987, President Yoweri Museveni while attending the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was asked by journalists why his government continued to torture opponents yet it claimed it had come to end torture.
According to a report in the New York Times newspaper, Museveni explained that there was no ‘deliberate torture’.
Museveni reportedly said: ‘I have heard reports that we torture, but I don’t believe that is the problem. I think the problem is rather the conditions, adequate space, for instance, people not being squeezed in a cell.’
In his famous 1986 inauguration speech that promised a fundamental change, President Museveni noted that the security of person and property was point number two of his now forgotten National Resistance Movement (NRM) Ten Point Programme.
He said: The people of Uganda should only die from natural causes that are beyond our control, but not at the hands of fellow citizens who continue to walk the length and breadth of our land freely’ No regime has a right to kill any citizen of this country, or to beat any citizen at a road block. We make it clear to our soldiers that if they abuse any citizen, the punishment they will receive will teach them a lesson. As for killing people – if you kill a citizen, you yourself will be killed’.
Yet today, `Safe houses’, the illegal torture chambers ran by government security operatives are in the news.
Early this month, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its report on Uganda that documents 106 cases of illegal detention of civilians by just one security agency; the Join Anti-terrorism Task Force (JATT) at just one safe house at Summit View in the posh Kampala suburb of Kololo.
The HRW number is a tip of the horror-story because Uganda has at least 33 security organisations and none of them can claim none of its officers is guilty of torture or running a safe house.
The question many are asking is: Why the government has failed to completely end torture in illegal detention centres and why a government that fought against past regimes (Obote II, Amin) that used torture, practices it within its security organisations.
According to the HRW report, Justice George Kanyeihamba told HRW on January 26, 2009 that while in his role as Senior Presidential Advisor on International and Human Rights Affairs in 1994 he directly informed President Yoweri Museveni that he had reports of torture at the Kololo safe house and that people had heard screams of agony. Kanyeihamba demanded an inquiry into torture at Kololo. It did not happen. Why?
The answer lies in evidence that since the early days of his regime, Museveni has presided over two parallel but contradicting scenarios.
By 1987, Ugandan were used to the famous kandoya, a method of torture where the victim’s hands were tied tightly behind their back at the elbow and the victim became either paralysed or died, was very commonly used by soldiers.
At the same time, however, in a purported show of its aversion to torture, Museveni’s government had appointed a commission to investigate human rights abuses by past regimes since independence. The Commission of Inquiry into violation of Human Rights was led by Justice Arthur Oder and had members like Senior Presidential Advisor John Nagenda.
The same pattern persists 20 years later. Torture of political opponents (real and suspected) remains a major problem even as Museveni and his government, pays lip service to human rights.
As a sign of the impunity with which the government torture chambers are run, the most notorious torture chamber is at Hill Lane in Kololo right next to many embassies and residencies of ambassadors. The second most notorious on Kitante Road is right in the middle of town.
The government brazenly defends these places as ‘places of work run by various security organisations’.
Former detainees say foreigners of Somali, Asian and Iraqi origin alongside Ugandans are held at the Kololo safe house.
By the time of writing this story, they included five Iraqi nationals suspected of having been in former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s army and three suspected Somali terrorists.
The Iraqi nationals passed through Entebbe airport with forged documents but were arrested in Nairobi in a joint operation coordinated by the American government while the Somalis were arrested at different intervals.
The HRW latest report also raises concerns about the collusion between Ugandan, American, British and Israel security operatives in total disregard of the human rights record.
‘The UK has a particular responsibility to raise human rights concerns directly with the Ugandan government’ to ensure that abuses by JATT and CMI agents are investigated and prosecuted,’ the report notes.
UPDF spokesperson Felix Kulaigye disagrees there is torture.
‘It is such habits of past regimes that made some of us abandon our professions and join the army. We in the army are totally against inhumane treatment of human beings and torture.’
But former army commander and FDC’s national mobiliser Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Mugisha Muntu attributes government’s failure to fight torture to the general character of the regime.
‘The incumbent is restless and is allowing anybody to do what they want so as to stick to power. Torture spreads fear and suppresses opposition. In an atmosphere of little or no freedom, security personnel are likely to take advantage and advance there personal issues.’
Muntu adds that the numerous security organisations lack proper supervision and thus lack accountability.
‘When I was army commander, we would get reports of torture from organisations like Red Cross. We would follow them up and the culprits would be punished. If the government does not build up the capacity of its organisations to be accountable over its actions, the problems will continue to hang on until a resolution is found.’
Muntu recalls the 90’s when President Museveni did not feel any threat to his power ‘such things would take place very rarely. Progressively as he felt his power stronghold reducing, these issues have escalated. What is one supposed to think? Progressively those officers involved in torture became worse.’
Foundation for Human Rights Initiative Director Livingstone Sewanyana attributed torture to poor training of law enforcement officers.
‘Our officers are poorly trained. They think that the only way one can get information from suspects is by torturing them. In other cases, selfish interest takes centre stage. During Mayombo’s time [as chief of military intelligence], torture was at its all time high. Safe houses were a way of work for CMI. It was not until there was a public outcry that cases reduced. You will also notice that cases of torture escalate during election times, a clear indication that the state and politicians have a hand in some torture cases. ‘
Sewanyana adds that the state has failed to control its operatives and hold them accountable to there actions. ‘Many take the law into their hands,’ he added.
He said, however, that issues of torture are increasingly coming under scrutiny these days.
The government has attempted to expose culprits and reprimand them, he said and attributed this effort to pressure from the donor community and public outcries.
Attempts to get comments from Justice Minister Kiddu Makubuya were met with resistance as the minister said that he was not available to answer questions on such a subject.
‘I am not in-charge of security. I run a civilian ministry. These questions should be directed to security personnel,’ he said.
The HRW 86-page report title: €˜Open Secret’ is as a result of more than 80 interviews with victims of torture who had been detained in safe houses in Kololo, Mutungo hill, Kitante, and others still in Luzira Maximum Security Prison. Many are on charges of terrorism and suspected involvement with the Allied Defence Force (ADF); a Ugandan rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The torture victims are hit with gun butts, slapped in the head and ears, beaten with fists, whips, canes, and contorted in painful body positions. Some reported red chili being put in their eyes, nose, ears and being shocked with electricity. Many die or a ‘disappeared’. A few are released without charge.
Issa Wazemba’s case is typical. The 25-year old man was picked from a bus at an army roadblock in 2007. He was held in secret detention centres, beaten with metals, starved, and water-boarded until he became an invalid and his leg was amputated. He has never been charged with a crime, although he was suspected of planning a terrorist attack at the time when Queen Elizabeth II of England was to visit Uganda for Commonwealth Heads of State and Government Meeting (CHOGM). (See Cover story)
In another incident, JATT operatives tortured a suspected ADF rebel until he died at Mulago hospital. JATT operatives then tried to retrieve the body by force but were resisted by Mulago Hospital staff who wanted to hand the body to relatives. JATT, however, faked a €˜relative’ who picked the body before the real relatives arrived.
Such stories only leak when a few escape or are released on condition they do not disclose what happened to them. Many live with both visible and invisible scars of torture and physical disabilities as a result of torture. Security personnel directly involved in torturing people retain their jobs although the government routinely condemns the practice.
In a shocking series, The Independent last year published more than 30 articles on torture.
In an October 20, 2008 letter to CMI boss Brig. James Mugira and copied to Dr. Kiddu Makubuya (Justice Minister) and Charles Ssentongo (Deputy Chief of Mission for Uganda in Washington), HRW Africa Director Georgette Gagnon specifically mentioned nine security personnel reportedly involved in torturing detainees and asked whether they were employees of JATT or CMI, their units and there superior officers to whom they report to.
Gagnot also mentioned 16 names of people who were last seen in JATT or CMI custody and whose whereabouts, legal status and health was unknown.
Efforts to reach Brig. Mugira for his comment by phone were unsuccessful. But the The Independent has established that Mugira has asked the CMI legal department to provide him with the necessary facts and legal input to respond to HRW.
In the past, Mugira is said to have issued instructions to JATT over detention of people without trial and torture. He advised JATT to expeditiously handle cases in there hands and never to torture detainees. He asked JATT officials to respect the law and warned that he would personally deal with anybody who was involved in torturing detainees.
There are unverified claims that cases of illegal detention and torture by JATT have significantly reduced. That the number of detainees at JATT headquarters at Summit view in Kololo has also reduced.
JATT is an amalgamation of various security organisations, including the Police, the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and the External Security Organisation (ESO). It was established without an act of Parliament or official directive and has no official legally specified powers or mandate. The HRW report notes: ‘JATT has become powerful but ungovernable’. Can Museveni finally act on it?