Police and army brutality increases in Uganda

The Ugandan police and army continues its brutal handling of mass protests against rising food and fuel prices. Ugandan authorities have also cracked down on social and independent media. A coalition of CSOs protests the way freedoms and rights of Ugandans are violated.

The protest letter, signed by Human Rights Network (HURINET) Uganda, among others, condemns the refusal of the Uganda Police Force (UPF) and the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) to let demonstrators participate peacefully in the ‘Walk to Work’and ‘Walk to Pray’ demonstrations that have taken place in various parts of Uganda in recent weeks. In doing so, Ugandan authorities violate their citizens’ right to the freedoms of movement and expression, guaranteed under the Ugandan Constitution. The UPF and UPDF also violate the rights to associate and peacefully demonstrate, once again guaranteed by the Ugandan Constitution, and also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Read the full protest letter, right.

On the fifth ‘walk to Work’ day, opposition leader Kizza Besigye was forced out of his own vehicle and blinded by pepper spray. At least five people have been killed so far in the riots, who have now also reached downtown Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Hundreds have been injured and admitted to hospital for treatment, while another 360 have been arrested, according internal affairs minister Kirunda Kivejinja.

In the protests on Thursday, opposition leader Besigye first sought refuge inside his own car and drove slowly as crowds gathered around, expressing their support. About a mile from the city centre, however, plainclothes police smashed his car windown with a hammer and sprayed pepper spray right into the car, Besigye’s bodyguards were dragged away and beaten, while Besigye himself was bundled onto the back of truck and driven away, blinded by the spray. Police then fired teargas to disperse the demonstrators.

Downtown Kampala, riots broke out protesting the brutal handling of Besigye, amidst untrue rumours that he had been killed. Police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba told Reuters: "(Besigye) attracted a crowd which he couldn’t control and we tried to give him directions to take another route but he defied these directives. Police used reasonable force but investigations are under way on any allegations of violence. Internal Affairs Minister Kivejinja told journalists that the police force was "within its constitutional mandate to restore law and order" by removing road blocks and "disengaging crowds".

Besigye was later released, from his fourth detention this month, and left for Kenya to receive treatment. In an earlier ‘Walk to Work’ demonstration, he was shot in the hand with a rubber bullet. One of his aides said to Ugandan radio stations that Besigye was in poor health, and still blind at the time of his departure. He had to be be helped on board the plain to Kenya.

Following the disputed parliamentary and presidential elections in Uganda, protests have increased and police and army attempts to control the protests grown in brutality. Besigye himself commented: "I think the president has lost the legitimacy to govern. […] Once you want to rule by force, it means you’ve lost the legitimacy because otherwise you should rule by the will of the people." Sam Akaki, also representing Besigye’s party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), added that "the country is heading towards a civil war. The army, state intelligence and police were armed by western countries so they have a moral obligation to intervene and speak against these atrocities.

The voice of the people is also clear: Robert Mayanja, 31, who described himself as an activist, said to the Guardian: "What they are doing now shows that Museveni rigged the last election" Mayanja thought a repeat of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia was "definitely" possible. "What we are seeing here are people who are not armed, but are taking a stand against armed forces. People are ready. It is just a question of time. We know they are going to arrest many people and put them in torture chambers. We know this regime has expired. These are the signs". Eric Mbiro, a 20-year-old student, agreed: "There is no presidency in Uganda. The president rules the country like his own home. He is a dictator. We need change." Mbiro was more sceptical about the prospects for an uprising, though: "We will not manage to do what they did in Egypt because people here are poor. There is too much poverty in Uganda".     

Earlier in the month, Ugandan authorities ordered a move to block access to the social networks including face book and twitter, to prevent mobilization for the ‘Walk to Work’ demonstrations. A letter dated 14 April signed by Quinto Ojok, Acting Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) was sent to different communications companies dealing with data, asking them to block communication via the Internet, including via cell phones. Eastern Africa Journalists Association commented that such attempts are "a clear violation of the freedom of expression and by extension that of the media. The government’s move to interfere with internet communication comes quick on the heels of attacks on journalists by security forces and limitation of their access to areas affected by the riots. We urge the government to respect both media freedom and the freedom of expression," said EAJA’s Secretary General Omar Faruk Osman.

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