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Court ruling puts Uganda torture in the spotlight

By Rosebell Kagumire

Questions about the clandestine operations of Ugandan security agencies have once again been raised after a Canadian court denied asylum to a former worker of the Internal Security Organisation (ISO).

Fahad Huthy Mutumba, 35, a Montreal resident, claims to have worked as an office clerk with ISO between August 2004 and late 2005. In his appeal against an earlier ruling denying him asylum, he told the court that his life had come under threat after he was suspected to have leaked information about torture to the media.

But the court pronounced that Mutumba was not eligible for asylum because he had worked for an organisation that committed crimes against humanity, as per the provisions of the UN Refugee Convention. He now faces deportation back to Uganda, where he says he fears torture at the hands of ISO.

The court relied partly on evidence that Moses Dramani, an organiser for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was tortured and poisoned while being held by ISO agents.

Dramani was reported killed at Makindye Barracks; Mutumba’s purported workplace, in 2005. FDC leaders say he is just one of many of their supporters who have died mysteriously while in custody on “framed charges.”

Armed with Dramani’s case, lawyers for the Canadian government told the court that Mutumba worked for ISO while the organisation was involved in torture.

However, the court reached its verdict on the ISO’s activities not only on the basis of the Dramani case, but also after reviewing documents from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Uganda Human Rights Commission that provided evidence that ISO engages in torture.

Mutumba lost his appeal after the judge sided with the Canadian government, which argued that Mutumba’s decision to work with ISO when he knew it engaged in torture disqualified him from protection under the UN Refugee Convention.

Justice Michel Shore said, In a situation of choice wherein one could remove oneself or extricate oneself, yet, nevertheless, to continue one’s work in an organisation that is personally known to commit torture … is to subject oneself to exclusion from convention refugee protection.

Speaking to The Independent, ISO’s deputy director Ronnie Barya denied that Mutumba ever worked for the security agency. That story is a concoction. I dont know any clerk we have employed with such names,” he said. He claims to have started working with us in 2004, yet we have recruited no employees since 2001.

Barya said that Mutumba’s case was an example of Ugandans tainting the organisation’s image as they seek employment or asylum in western countries.

John Ntambirweki, a senior law don, said the ruling could have international implications for the Ugandan government. The court has ruled that Uganda is guilty of crimes against humanity, and crimes against humanity can be tried by any country, he told The Independent. If a court can deny a clerk asylum, then leaders of these organisations, present and past, could be affected.

This is because crimes against humanity are systemic, not tagged to an individual, Ntambirweki explained.

But Ronnie Barya denied that ISO had been involved in committing such crimes. “Our mandate is clear. Our role is only intelligence-gathering and we havent gone beyond it. We dont detain people,he said.

Barya said that the organisation has a disciplinary committee that ensures agents do not work outside the law, unlike agencies under past Ugandan regimes.

A top lawyer told The Independent that the Canadian case should be a wake-up call for employees of Ugandan security agencies.

 “It is rather embarrassing that a finding of this nature has been made – more so when it is partially based on the reports of the Uganda Human Rights Commission,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity. “All employees of security agencies should familiarise themselves with the provisions of the UN Refugee Convention, because their actions now may later deprive them of the protection available to all people in the world under that convention.”

The lawyer said that the case may not necessarily set a precedent. “I do not think that this case would, of itself, establish a precedent, in Canada or elsewhere in the Commonwealth,” he said. “There may be scope in the future for other tribunals or courts to determine as a matter of fact, with more evidence placed before them, that the ISO is not directed to brutal purposes, but also carries out legitimate national security duties.”

Oscar Kihika, president of the Uganda Law Society, said the judgment shows that the international community is now more watchful on issues of human rights violations.

“After the Rwandan genocide, members of the international community have become keen to prove they cannot stand by and ignore organs of government that are perceived to be part of activities that infringe on human rights,” he said.

Yet all three lawyers agreed that the judgment was unlikely to change the way Ugandan security agencies operate in the short term.

“I am very sceptical such a ruling will improve the situation in Uganda. The government will say we have institutions like the Constitutional Court and Human Rights commission which address such cases,” said Kihika.

Ntambirweki said the system cannot be changed overnight. “It will not change unless you uproot the entire system. The government could change the names of the agencies to give the appearance of reform, but this will be only ‘plastic’ reform.”

The case puts the spotlight back on the issue of torture in Ugandan detention centres. In 2007, British MPs asked their government to press President Museveni to explain the disappearance of Moses Dramani, along with other opposition supporters.

Early last year, The Independent published a series of stories about torture carried out by Ugandan security agencies. The government reacted by raiding the magazines offices. But cases like Mutumba’s, whether or not he worked at ISO, are likely to focus international attention on the issue of torture in Uganda.

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