By Isaac K. Ssemakadde
Human rights of political activists need more protection during this election season
As we approach the 2016 general elections, a disturbing, constant pattern has emerged in Uganda according to recent reports of the press and human rights defenders.
The NRM government led by President Yoweri Museveni is committing serious human rights violations against perceived critics and political opponents, perpetuating a climate of fear and repression in which injustice prevails and accountability for abuses is beyond reach. But this trend is not new.
Since the return of multiparty politics in 2005, Museveni’s government has ruthlessly repressed all forms of dissent. During the election season, state security forces and paramilitary groups routinely carry out unlawful killings and arbitrarily arrest, detain and abduct people, causing hundreds to flee the country.
Most of the abuses are now documented in the reports of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, and elections observers like the DEMGROUP from 2005 to 2014.
When the Supreme Court last reviewed the management of elections in 2006, it cited high levels of violence and attacks against political activists, insufficient mechanisms to protect them, and campaigns to undermine the initiatives of civil society and political organisations.
Lamentably, the situation is no better today. The NRM administration has done little to prevent, mitigate and remedy violations against opposition political activists, and instead, has overseen a weakening of the very institutions designed to protect them, and increased the public stigmatisation of their work.
Space for political activism is becoming increasingly restricted not only through the imposition of legal restrictions and bureaucratic constraints, but also through intimidation, workplace discrimination/victimisation, defamation and stigmatisation campaigns (e.g. labelling a bona fide activist as a terrorist, homosexual, traitor or criminal), arbitrary arrest, judicial harassment and imprisonment, abduction and forced disappearance, torture, death threats, physical attacks and even murder of political activists – majority of whom are young, poor and unemployed Ugandans below the age of 35.
Every week, at least 50 journalists, student leaders, political opposition members, religious leaders, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, come to our two-roomed, single-advocate Centre for Legal Aid based at Teachers’ House on Bombo Road in Kampala City to report serious human rights abuses.
In some cases, we are approached by former members of the security forces and paramilitary groups. Many believe they are under surveillance by the intelligence services, and speak to us at great personal risk.
The cases we have worked on in the past two years paint a dire picture of the context for opposition politics in Uganda.
Besides conducting forced evictions of social protests and political opposition rallies using military warships like we recently observed in Soroti, Ugandan security forces arrest young people by night without suspicion or charge, often detaining them secretly for months and even years, without access to their families, lawyers or physicians.
When detained for political reasons, perceived supporters of the opposition and those who criticise the president or the government like Norman Tumuhimbise of the Jobless Brotherhood and Vincent Kaggwa of the NRM Poor Youth Group are subjected to torture and other ill-treatment sanctioned by elite officers in Uganda’s Internal Security Organisation, the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, or the Uganda Police Force.
Government oppression of the media remains particularly subtle but severe, purposely to silence criticism and suppress negative information about the country to the outside world. Dozens of journalists have been fired from their jobs or duty stations at the instigation of NRM politicians and presidential assistants.
Despite the rampant human rights abuses, Ugandan authorities have conducted few investigations into allegations of torture or ill-treatment of political activists by state officials, and no government officials, security services personnel, or paramilitary groups have been held to account for serious violations, except of course the former Old Kampala divisional police commander Joram Mwesigye whose shenanigans were recorded live on camera and instantly broadcast on social media.
Ugandans must rise up and confront the NRM government to cease and desist from violent attacks, repression and impunity for violations against opposition political activists. International donors and other governments should consistently and publicly condemn human rights violations in Uganda, raise concerns with government officials at all levels, and press for accountability for abuses by state security forces.
Isaac Ssemakadde is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda and the CEO Legal Brains Trust, a Kampala-based human rights watchdog. He is also the chairperson of the Network for Public Lawyers – Civil & Political Rights Section. Email: [email protected]