HRW urges Uganda to shut illegal detention sites used for tortur

(AFP) – Uganda’s government must stop using illegal detention centres as a weapon against dissidents and close the facilities, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tuesday in a report documenting the prevalence of torture at the clandestine sites.

The report featured interviews with 51 people, including 34 former detainees and eyewitnesses to abductions, who described a litany of abuses at the hands of police, army officials and Uganda’s domestic intelligence agency, the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), between April 2019 and November 2021.

The crackdown reached fever pitch during the two months leading up to and following Uganda’s January 2021 general elections, which saw government critics, opposition politicians and protesters unlawfully detained and forcibly disappeared.

In many cases, the whereabouts of those detained remain unknown, HRW said, more than a year after the polls ended with the re-election of President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda with an iron fist since 1986.

“Human Rights Watch calls on the government of Uganda to immediately close all so-called safehouses and other unauthorised detention centres,” the global rights body said.

“The authorities should immediately release all detainees held in such places of detention or bring them promptly before a court to be charged.”

Victims told HRW about being bundled into vans known as “drones”, which are associated with abductions of government opponents in Uganda, before being taken to secret detention sites supervised by the ISO.

The locations ranged from residential neighbourhoods in the capital Kampala to an island in Lake Victoria, where detainees were allegedly tortured, with their captors pulling out their fingernails, burning their bodies with an iron or sexually assaulting them.

In some cases, victims were handcuffed, chained and suspended from the ceiling for a dozen hours at a time, in a technique called “Rambo”.

Others spoke of being injected with unknown substances or being subjected to electric shocks, while some described seeing detainees with bricks hanging from their testicles.

– ‘Horrific abuses’ –

In February 2020, the Ugandan parliament’s house committee on human rights published a report documenting cases of torture at detention centres operated by the police and ISO and called for further investigations into the issue. But no such probes have taken place, HRW said.

“The Ugandan authorities, as a matter of urgency, need to reform the police and other security agencies to dismantle the structures that have enabled these horrific abuses to occur and go unpunished,” said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at HRW.

In recent years, Uganda has witnessed a series of crackdowns aimed at stamping out dissent, with journalists attacked, lawyers jailed, election monitors prosecuted and opposition leaders violently muzzled.

Award-winning Ugandan author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija fled to Germany last month to seek medical treatment after allegedly having been tortured following his detention on charges of insulting Museveni and his son.

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