The Ugandan police Rapid Response Unit frequently operates outside the law, carrying out torture, extortion, and in some cases, extrajudicial killings, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Wednesday.
Ugandan authorities should urgently open an independent investigation into the unit’s conduct and activities and hold accountable anyone responsible for human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said.
The 59-page report, “Violence Instead of Vigilance: Torture and Illegal Detention by Uganda’s Rapid Response Unit,” documents the unit’s illegal methods of investigation and serious violations of the rights of the people it arrests and detains. The unit has a history of violent and unlawful operations since it was formed by President Yoweri Museveni in 2002 as Operation Wembley, an ad-hoc security entity commanded by an active member of the Ugandan military. Later, the unit became the Violent Crime Crack Unit and was formally taken under police command. In 2007, it was renamed the Rapid Response Unit.
“Changing the unit’s name, leadership, and command makes no difference to the people this unit tortures, detains, or in some cases kills,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities and the donors who fund the police need to get serious about holding abusive officers of this unit accountable.”
The Human Rights Watch investigation spanned the period from November 2009 to January 2011 and included over 100 interviews with people arrested and formerly detained by the unit, widely known as RRU, as well as former detainees’ family members, current and former employees of the unit, other police officials, intelligence officers, lawyers, journalists, and civil society members.
Outside the Law
The unit’s mandate is to investigate “violent crime,” but officers and affiliated personnel have made arrests for a wide range of alleged crimes, from petty offenses to terrorism. The unit’s personnel typically operate in unmarked cars, wear civilian clothing with no identifying insignia, and carry a variety of guns, from pistols to larger assault rifles. The unit’s members have on some occasions transported suspects in the trunks of unmarked cars.
Human Rights Watch also found that the unit routinely uses torture to extract confessions. Sixty of 77 interviewees who had been arrested by RRU told Human Rights Watch that they had been severely beaten at some point during their detention and interrogations. In 2010, at least two people died of injuries from beatings during interrogations, and four people were shot and killed in the course of an arrest. Several former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had witnessed co-detainees die from beatings during interrogations, but did not know the names of the individuals.
Scores of victims across Uganda cited nearly identical treatment during interrogations by the unit’s officers. Detainees were beaten on the joints with batons over the course of several days while handcuffed in stress positions with their hands under their legs. Human Rights Watch also found that RRU personnel regularly beat detainees with batons, sticks, glass bottles, bats, metal pipes, padlocks, table legs, and other objects. In rare instances, the unit’s officers inserted pins under detainees’ fingernails or used electric shock torture. The Ugandan authorities at all levels have a responsibility both to end these practices and to prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
One former detainee of the unit told Human Rights Watch about his arrest and interrogation for allegedly having a gun: “They handcuffed me and beat me with a [glass] Coke bottle. They beat my friend too. They hit him in the ears a lot. As they were talking they would slap me, saying “tell us where the gun is,” hitting me in the ankles, face, ears and elbows. We went to the RRU office. They took my money from me – about 70,000 shillings [about US$30]. They took us back to our home – searched the house and started torturing me again.”
Theft of money during investigations is a common complaint by former detainees. Some were also told they would be released if family members would bring cash to the officers. In several instances, victims of robberies told Human Rights Watch that RRU officers told them money had been recovered during investigations, but then the officers kept part or all of the money.
Forced Confessions and Illegal Prosecutions
Several former detainees told Human Rights Watch that RRU personnel forced them to sign statements under duress, while the detainees were being beaten or threatened with further violence. None of those whom Human Rights Watch interviewed had been brought before a court within the constitutionally mandated 48 hours. In most cases, they were denied access to family or lawyers, in breach of the law.
People arrested by RRU are most often held in the unit’s headquarters in Kireka, Kampala. They are usually then handed over to the military authorities to face trial before military courts. In 2009, the country’s constitutional court held that military courts do not have jurisdiction over civilians. The African Commission has also prohibited the trial of civilians in military courts. But Ugandan authorities ignore these rulings and continue these illegal prosecutions.
The military court martial judges, despite hearing testimony detailing torture, have taken no known steps to address the abuses. Human Rights Watch observed trials in which confessions extracted through torture were held as admissible evidence by the court martial without proper scrutiny of the source and methods by which the evidence was obtained.
There are no precise figures about how many people may have died in RRU custody or as a result of abuses by the unit. But Human Rights Watch research documented at least six extrajudicial killings in 2010. RRU officers shot and killed four people in Kyengera in January. In May, Henry Bakasamba died while officers were questioning him about a robbery of a foreign exchange bureau. In August, RRU officers severely beat Frank Ssekanjako, a 22-year-old robbery suspect, and he died shortly thereafter. In a positive step, three officers have been arrested and charged with Ssekanjako’s murder, but they were not charged for the severe beatings of Ssekanjako’s co-accused.
The case of these three officers provides an important opportunity for the authorities to show they are serious about tackling RRU’s abusive culture. However, Human Rights Watch remains concerned about the quality of the police investigation into Ssekanjako’s killing, and the actions of the police investigators seriously call into question whether the authorities are committed to pursuing the case with the best evidence. For example, investigators have failed to collect statements from key witnesses, to determine the precise cause of Ssekanjako’s death, or to document the full range of violence he and his co-accused were subjected to by the unit’s officers.
Involvement in Terrorism Investigations
The unit has had a high profile since the Kampala bombings in July 2010 in which 79 people were killed. Several suspects were brought to the unit, interrogated, held incommunicado and beyond the statutory time limits. In some instances, individuals who had been charged for the bombing were brought from the prison back to the unit headquarters in Kireka to face further questioning. There is evidence that in some cases, members of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation questioned suspects at the Kireka unit, apparently to seek out individuals willing to work as informants in ongoing counterterrorism operations in the region.
International investigators working on law enforcement operations or supporting Uganda’s efforts to bring those responsible for the Kampala bombings to justice should not work alongside or with abusive units, Human Rights Watch said.
In November 2010, the inspector general of police appointed a new RRU commander. He has since told Human Rights Watch that he had instituted numerous changes, including establishing a complaints desk and a toll-free phone line for the public to communicate with the unit. He said he is open to criticism and hoped to work closely with civil society to address complaints.
“It is significant that the new leadership declared a commitment to improving RRU. However, actions speak louder than words,” Bekele said. “People who have been tortured and are behind bars facing charges will not be able to call a phone number or report to a complaints desk. Lawyers need to be present during interrogations, action needs to be taken against known abusers and torturers, and the culture of impunity needs rooting out.”
Government’s Legal Obligations
Uganda has a responsibility under international law to investigate allegations of abuses by its police and security forces and to hold those responsible to account. The authorities should take an active role in curtailing those abuses and ensure that allegations of torture and illegal detention are properly investigated and prosecuted. Within the Ugandan system of criminal administration, both the judiciary and the prosecution should challenge the legality of RRU’s investigative methods and exclude from evidence any confessions obtained by torture or in any other coercive way. The Ugandan Parliament also has a responsibility to act urgently, for example by enacting long-overdue legislation to criminalize torture in Uganda.
“No police force is going to be respected and trusted by the people it exists to protect if it flouts the law, tortures detainees, and disregards due process,” Bekele said. “Officials at any level of the Ugandan state that tolerate or encourage RRU’s behavior may be held accountable for the consequences.”