Uganda’s Police bosses can hide but cannot escape, say human rights watchers
Kampala, Uganda | MUBATSI ASINJA HABATI | Human rights lawyers and activists want the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) to take interest in the recent acts of violence by agents of security forces, especially the police.
Isaac Semakadde, a human rights lawyer and activist, told The Independent that special attention should focus on the Inspector General of Police (IGP), John Martins Okoth Ochola and his deputy (DIGP) Maj. Gen. Steven Sabiiti Muzeyi.
He said they are responsible for permitting or failing to take appropriate measures or to exercise due diligence to prevent, punish, investigate or redress the harm caused by election campaign-related extrajudicial killings and election interference witnessed in the last month, especially during protests after presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine was arrested.
Ochola and Sabiiti have been conspicuously quiet and missing but Semakadde says the silence of current police top leaders does not give them immunity to prosecution. He says Ochola and Sabiiti are by law directly responsible for the actions of the police force under Articles 20(2) and 221 of the Constitution.
“In their thinking they believe silence will exonerate them from criminal prosecution – which is wrong,” Semakadde says.
Semakadde is a lawyer with interest in international law and pointing the spotlight on Ochola and Sabiiti over possible human rights abuses during this election period could be based on what befell former IGP, Gen. Kale Kayihura.
Kayihura who was IGP from 2005 to 2018 oversaw policing during three general elections in 2006, 2011, and 2016 which were all marred by violence and human rights abuses.
Kayihura was sacked as IGP by President Museveni in March 2018 but his major indictment by the international community would come over a year later. On September 13, 2019 the American government slapped economic sanctions and visa restrictions on Kayihura making him the first former police boss to suffer such public restrictions. He was banned from stepping on USA soil over “gross violation of human rights” when he was Uganda’s police chief, his indictment said.
Kayihura was a hands-on police boss who led from the front not like Ochola and Sabiiti, who operate in the background. Kayihura was the face of security forces for the 13 years he was in charge of police. He would be there to explain and account whenever there was an incident involving police and law enforcement, whether criminal or political.
According to many observers, Kayihura’s biggest test over election was scene in April when the force battle Walk-to-Work protesters. Many protesters were killed by police and so-called Local Defence Unit (LDU) in operations that saw the first full-scale use of teargas and live ammunition fired at unarmed protesters.
In a major incident, a 2-year-old girl; Julian Abigail Nalwanga, was shot dead. This incident stood out because the LDU who killed her in Masaka on April 21 deliberately fired into the house where the baby and her mother had locked themselves. They were not part of the protest.
As was his fashion, Kayihura visited her family a few days later. He also paraded two suspects and they were court-martialed. But the trial was a charade. There was no sentence and they were both set free.
Over this period, Ochola was Kayihura’s deputy. And when he was appointed IGP on March 04, 2018, members of parliament during the vetting process asked him to comment on his role in the 2016 election violence.
Ochola told parliament’s Appointments Committee that the mess police created during the 2016 elections should fall squarely on Kayihura. He said Kayihura created the so-called Crime Preventers, a militia who were at the forefront of most of the electoral-related violence; including intimidating political opposition candidates.
It is not clear who Ochola will blame this time. Possibly it will still be his boss, President Yoweri Museveni.
Museveni, however, has religiously always passed blamed on to Ochola. On Sept.04, for example, Museveni wrote to Ochola regarding the killing of people by police during the NRM party primaries. The letter has since become famously known as the “September 8th letter” since Museveni likes to refer to it often, although some reports say it is dated September 9th.
In it Museveni tells Ochola: “I am writing to direct you to stop the random shootings by the LDUs and police, all under the command of police.”
Museveni adds that Ochola should produce a manual or booklet on gun use in Uganda to guide the force because according to him, most of the police shooting that result into death are “unnecessary”.
Museveni again recently referred to his famous letter in an address to the nation on Nov.29 which centred on the events of November 18 and 19 in which the police shot at unarmed civilians following protests over the arrest of Bobi Wine.
Museveni again said most of the shooting was unnecessary.
“Even if you do not have anti-riot equipment, you can still firmly but humanely handle a riotous situation as I guided in my letter to the IGP of the 8th of September, 2020. You should, first, fire in the air to scare rioters. With firing in the air, there cannot be “stray bullets” because, by the time the bullet falls back on the ground, it will no longer be lethal.