Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni should ensure independent and transparent investigations into killings which occurred during the “Walk to Work” protests and hold security forces accountable, a coalition of 105 human rights, media, and development organizations said in a letter to the president today. The coalition, including civil society groups from every corner of Uganda, urged the president to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.
During the April 2011 protests over the rising costs of commodities and the arrest of opposition leaders, police and military responded to protesters with live ammunition in Kampala, Gulu, Mbale, and Masaka, leaving at least nine unarmed people dead. The known circumstances of the deaths to date indicate that the use of lethal force was unnecessary and unjustified. The government has arrested hundreds of protesters and put significant resources into investigating alleged acts of looting, arson, and destruction of property, but little effort has gone into investigating killings by security forces, the groups said.
Some government officials have contended that those killed were violent protesters. One victim’s family was told at the morgue that they were not permitted to retrieve the body because “all these people died while attempting to overthrow the government.”
“Blaming the victims is a weak ploy to distract attention from the actions of the security forces,” said Arthur Larok of the Uganda National NGO Forum. “The government needs to determine what really happened and to make sure that those responsible are held responsible.”
One police officer has been arrested in the shooting of 2-year-old Julian Nalwanga by police in Masaka. In a May 17 opinion article by Museveni in several Ugandan newspapers, he referred to the shooting as a “criminal killing.” The government has said the police officer will face trial before military courts, despite a 2009 ruling by the Constitutional Court barring prosecution of civilians before military jurisdictions. No one else has been arrested in connection with the other deaths of unarmed civilians.
Impunity for serious crimes by members of the security forces, especially during political demonstrations, persists in Uganda, the coalition, which includes 95 Ugandan organizations, said. Ugandan law guarantees the right to free assembly, speech, and association, but in practice the government has often responded to the exercise of these rights with firearms and lethal force.
In September 2009, at least 40 people were killed by security forces during two days of protests in Kampala after the authorities sought to restrict the movement of Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, the cultural leader of the Buganda ethnic group. Human Rights Watch documented numerous instances in which unarmed protesters and bystanders died after police and military police used live ammunition to scare people off the streets or shot into people’s homes. Despite numerous commitments by government ministers and Uganda’s parliament to investigate those events, no one has been held accountable for those killings, and the police and soldiers responsible have never been punished.
“We have seen the government promise investigations before, but in the end, nothing happens and perpetrators remain in active service,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The president should show that things will be different this time and listen to civil society by ensuring an independent investigation with international expertise.”
The groups also called upon Uganda, as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, to cooperate fully with the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and invite these international experts to Uganda. In 1986 Museveni’s government extended an invitation and was host to the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. Uganda should issue standing invitations to all special rapporteurs and UN working groups to visit Uganda, the groups said. This engagement with the UN would facilitate the necessary investigations and help ensure present and future accountability.
“An invitation to the Special Rapporteurs would demonstrate that Uganda is committed to rule of law and understands the importance of accountability,” said Mohammed Ndifuna, chief executive officer at HURINET-Uganda. “It is time for the government to stop ignoring killings during demonstrations.”