Uganda: Police – the New Face of Violence

10 August 2010
Kampala — Drifrance Musisi, a supporter of the National Alliance for Free and Fair Elections (NAFFE), was excited as he left the school where he teaches in Kampala on July 26 and headed to the city centre to hang up posters announcing the next day’s demonstrations.

His conviction is that next year’s general elections must be free and fair. Along with three other NAFFE activists, Musisi was ready to participate in the countrywide demonstrations calling for the overhaul of the Electoral Commission (EC). He did not suspect his day would end in a police cell where he would spend a day being tortured.

Musisi and his colleagues were pasting NAFFE posters denouncing the Kiggundu-led EC posters on trees near Sure House on Bombo Road in the city centre when a police patrol car pulled up behind them. Policemen jumped off the truck, bundled them on a pickup truck, and sped off to Wandegeya Police station.

“They took us to a dark room where they began beating us. They made us sing songs praising the ruling party,” says Musisi, “Three policemen kicked us ruthlessly asking who had sent us, who we support, which political party we belong to and why, and then which party NAFFE is working for.”

He says after almost every 20 lashes of the cane, the torturers would stop and pour a basin of water on them before resuming the beating. Musisi says the OC Wandegeya Police Station supervised the torture. “Whenever we asked why we were being beaten, they would increase the intensity of flogging and kicking. They spayed pepper in my eyes and I feel so much pain,” Musisi, whose eyes are still red, says. Musisi’s back bears bruises he claims were inflicted on him by the police officers. Some of the wounds are deep and are just a few inches to the ribs. He cannot walk properly.

The DPC Wandegeya Police Station, Gerald Tumushime, confirmed arresting Musisi and group but denies they were tortured. He challenges Musisi to return to the station point out the officer who tortured him. Tumushime said Musisi and his colleagues are still under investigation though they were released on police bond. The OC Wandegeya, says people are not tortured at police stations and dismissed Musisi’s allegations as false.

Musisi, 31, a primary school teacher turned political activist, was one of many people rounded up by police on the eve of the July 27 nationwide demonstrations against the Electoral Commission. The protesters accuse the EC of bias and incompetence and want it disbanded.

Musisi and his friends were arrested at 9 pm and were released on a police bond at 8 pm on Tuesday after being charged with inciting violence.

The encounter of the police and opposition supporters last Tuesday was marked by ghastly scenes of police brutality across the country. The police beat up NAFFE protesters in Hoima, Mbale, Arua, Kampala, Soroti, Bushenyi, Jinja and Rukungiri. In all cases, police wielding sticks beat up whoever dared show up on streets. Even demonstrators who did not resist arrest were beaten up. The beating was so brutal that, for the first time, some officers have been reprimanded.

“Officer you are not supposed to beat me because I am exercising my constitutional right because I am demonstrating peacefully. You are supposed to provide me and other demonstrators security,” shouted a youthful demonstrator to a police officer at City House in Kampala. The police man has just taken the demonstrator’s shirt, an act that provoked him.

In another incident, Francis Mwijukye, a youthful political activist, was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “NAFFE” when he went to police to bail out an arrested colleague. “The police ordered me to take off the T-shirt claiming it expressed support for the arrested. They removed the T-shirt and I went back to office undressed.”

The anti-riot police, in their new blue,white-light, and green patterned camouflage uniforms flog the demonstrators with sadistic glee; throwing their captives on the blue UP-registered police pick up trucks and rain tick lashes on their often contorted bodies. Video footage from Mbale town, showed demonstrators being bundled on police pick-up cars trying to shield themselves from whips of policemen flogging them even when they were submissive to arrest.

It has become a pattern. The situation is similar to the run up to the 2006 elections. Police pounce on any sign of a demo. On June 9, Kizza Besigye, the leader of Uganda’s biggest opposition party, the the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) was flogged by the stick-happy gangs in civilian clothing as the police personnel watched. But it has got worse since two bomb blasts, blamed on Somali’s al Shabaab insurgents, rocked the city on July 11.

Human rights activists are concerned that the government might be using the terrorist attacks on Kampala as a blanket pretext to deny people the freedom of assembly.

Livingstone Sewanyana, Executive Director for the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, says state agencies like the police should device measures of protecting Ugandans without violating their rights. He says the threat of terrorism has been more pronounced in the Western world but people there have continued to exercise their civil liberties such as the right to demonstrate. Sewanyana says it is important for the police to respect the people’s constitutional right to assemble, demonstrate and express themselves peacefully, and unarmed without impediment on their rights as they protect all stakeholders.

But the police claim terrorists can take advantage of the crowds to hit at the innocent people.

“We are not saying they should not demonstrate,” says Asan Kasingye, the police’s Deputy IGP for Community Affairs, “(But) we should not compromise safety because I think the right to life is much better than the right to assemble or demonstrate.”

He says people need to notify the police of their functions as the Constitutional court ruled in 2008 but “we need ample time to be able to work so that no one accuses the other of faltering in case of an attack.”

However, in the case of Muwanga Kivumbi Vs the Attorney General, the Constitutional Court ruled that holding a demonstration is a constitutional right and one does not have to seek permission from the police but merely to notice the police to offer protection to the demonstrators. However, the police and the executive have ignored this ruling. Instead, they often cite security or manpower reasons to deny the Ugandans, especially the political opposition groups, their right to demonstrate.

The court ruled that: “a society, especially a democratic one, should be able to tolerate a good deal of annoyance or disorder so as to encourage the greatest possible freedom of expression, particularly political expression… the right to peaceful protest is not absolute…Government has a duty of maintaining proper channels and structures to ensure that legitimate protest whether political or otherwise can find a voice.”

Sewanyana says the executive arm of government ought to comply with the court ruling

“While the security agencies fight terrorism, people’s liberties should be protected. These liberties can only be restricted in manner that is demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society,” says Sewanyana. He says security agencies should not use terror attacks to suppress people campaigning for free and fair elections next year, the people’s freedom to assemble, associate and express themselves should be upheld.

Margret Wokuri, the Interim Coordinator of NAFFE, wonders why it is only opposition political assemblies that the police are against yet there are many places where crowds gather for other purposes and are not dispersed.

Wokuri, an assertive woman who speaks in a sharp commanding voice, says she is determined to take the activities of her new pressure group, which has brought her in the limelight, further. “I know the police brutality to demonstrators would not reduce but we will expose the kind of police force we have in this country,” she says.She says whenever police exhibit good crowd management skills, there is no chaos.

But with the 2011 elections, which are being organistion by a discredited Electoral Commission, at hand, police brutality and intolerance and opposition defiance, broken bones and bleeding faces are likely to increase.

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