OCampaigners for the position who have spent months behind bars in Uganda have described systematic physical abuse, denial of basic legal rights and appalling conditions as they await trial on charges they claim to have been fabricated.
The activists’ experiences, revealed to the Guardian after their release last month, will increase pressure on Uganda, a key Western ally in East Africa, over human rights abuses that have worsened dramatically since the president of the country, Yoweri Museveni, has started to face a significant political challenge in recent years.
Since the campaign opened last year for the elections held in January, hundreds – if not thousands – of supporters of opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi have been arrested and illegally detained for months in the worst wave of repression for decades.
Others, torn from the streets by the security services in a series of kidnappings, have disappeared in secret prisons. More than 50 people were killed during protests in November. Most were shot dead by security forces.
Among those arrested in the past seven months, more than 120 activists working with Kyagulanyi – who is a former reggae singer also known as Bobi Wine – were arrested on December 30 on charges of inciting violence after protests in following the arrest of their leader for violating Covid regulations.
Although many were released or freed on bail, 49 detainees, including many close associates of Kyagulanyi, were later diverted from civilian courts to a military barracks before being charged with the serious felony of possession of four live ammunition.
The men said they were pepper sprayed and beaten by police while handcuffed during their arrests in December, then, when confined in a cell, forced to strip and do exercises while being beaten with it. cables and wires by men who appeared to be soldiers. At least one of them suffered a lot of pressure on his genitals.
“The military officers had these wires for electric cables and these batons,” said Ali Bukeni, Kyagulanyi’s music and political partner. “These guys blew up our handcuffed frog colleagues while kicking and kicking them. Many of them were injured.
Eddy Ssebuufu, Kyagulanyi’s security chief and bodyguard, said the guards told him to prepare to die. “They asked me to say my last prayers. I told them, you can’t kill me… We are in a liberation struggle, ”he said.
Conditions of detention were poor, the released men said. While held at Kitalya maximum security prison, they were forced into cells so overcrowded that the men slept on their sides, urinating where they lay to avoid losing their place on the floor. The months spent in military detention in Masaka in the southwest have not been better.
“They gave us a bucket to put in the corner. This is where we used to urinate and defecate, ”Ssebuufu said. “We had to endure the bad smell all night. We would pour it in the morning. We were turning to sleep. Some would sleep and others would remain standing.
The detainees said they were denied access to their lawyers and families for most of their six months in detention and were kept in full isolation. No newspapers were allowed and the only television broadcast cartoons for children.
“We were excluded from the world,” said Bukeni, who described the refusal of contact as “psychological torture”.
Museveni, 76, has been in power for 35 years and enjoys strong support in some rural areas, as well as among the military, security services and police. The United States and the United Kingdom have given billions of dollars in development and security assistance to Uganda in recent years. Both have clearly expressed their growing concerns over recent human rights violations.
Although the jailed men were in custody at the time of the alleged offense, they were held until mid-June, when they were released on bail by the Ugandan army’s general court martial in the capital. , Kampala.
Museveni claimed victory in the January election, which was marred by allegations of fraud and harassment of opposition activists.
The Kyagulanyi National Unity Platform has listed more than 600 members and activists who have reportedly been detained. NUP officials believe the real figure is likely over 1,000. Some of those pulled off the streets have been convicted after summary court hearings. Many are not brought to justice at all.
Upon their release, many reported systematic torture, detention in harsh conditions in often secret prisons, and denial of access to relatives or lawyers.
“Five soldiers came. They called us one by one, ”Ssebuufu said. “You are taken to a small room and told to undress. They told me to take off my shirt, mask, socks and pants. I stayed in boxers. They ordered me to take off the boxers too. I asked why. A soldier cocked his gun and asked: do you refuse? So I had to remove them. They told me to stand in the corner and lean over [over]. The guy started to squeeze my genitals. The pain was unbearable. I was crying.”
Daniel Brenny Oyerwot, music producer and sound engineer for Kyagulanyi, said he was on his way to a campaign meeting in December when his vehicle was stopped by a combined force of ordinary soldiers, special forces commanded by the son of Museveni and police officers.
“We were forcibly kicked out of the cars. Some of the windshields on the cars were smashed… We were handcuffed and beaten up. They [security operatives] stepped on our heads and some of them hit us on the back with batons, ”said the 28-year-old.