Killings and human rights violations escalating in Uganda ahead of election day

Amnesty International on Sunday called on the Ugandan authorities to take measures to immediately end the wave of human rights violations and abuses in the context of the ongoing election campaigns, with a month left to election day.

Voters in the East African country are due to go to the polls on January 14, 2021, to elect a president, members of parliament and local government representatives, in what is proving to be the most violent election period in the country’s history.

“With election day fast approaching, it is imperative that the Ugandan authorities reverse the persistent use of excessive force by the security forces, arbitrary arrests and detention and attacks on journalists. Authorities must ensure that suspected perpetrators are brought to justice and that victims are granted access to justice and effective remedies,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.

Dozens of protesters killed

The campaign period has been characterized by  killings, beatings and violent dispersal of opposition supporters using teargas and rubber bullets.

In the five weeks since electoral campaigns began on 9 November, dozens of people have been killed in election-related violence, most of them shot dead by police and other security forces, including unidentified gun-toting individuals in plainclothes, and dozens more have been injured.

President Yoweri Museveni has publicly stated that  54 people were killed on 18 and 19 November in the protests and unrest that followed the arrest of the leading opposition presidential candidate and popular musician, Robert Kyagulanyi (popularly known as Bobi Wine).

“That no less than 54  protesters were killed by police and other unidentified individuals in plainclothes in just two days should be a warning call to the world that worse may be yet to come as election day approaches,” said Deprose Muchena.

“The African Union, and the United Nations must increase pressure on Ugandan authorities to end acts of political repression and to respect human rights before, during and after the elections.”

President Museveni, so far in office for 34 years, is seeking a sixth term. Other candidates in the presidential race include Robert Kyagulanyi for the National Unity Platform (NUP) party, retired former army commander Maj-Gen Mugisha Muntu of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), Patrick Oboi Amuriat for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and Norbert Mao of the Democratic Party (DP).

COVID-19 pandemic used as a pretext for repression

While many opposition presidential candidates have been subjected to some form of police violence on the campaign trail the worst of it appears to be targeted at Robert Kyagulanyi and supporters of his NUP party. They have been shot at, teargassed, beaten and arbitrarily detained, besides being repeatedly denied access to tarmacked roads, public grounds and hotels in many parts of the country.

On 1 December, police fired shots into Kyagulanyi’s car, prompting him to briefly suspend his campaign. He has now taken to wearing a hard hat and bullet proof vest since he returned to the campaign trail.

The authorities have justified the use of force as necessary to ensure compliance with measures to contain COVID-19. However, there is evidence Ugandan law is being used disproportionately to restrict opposition gatherings.

“While it is reasonable that the Ugandan authorities, like others elsewhere around the world, should take measure to halt the further spread of COVID-19, it is apparent that in Uganda, COVID-19 regulations have been weaponized and disproportionately applied to the opposition as pretext for political repression and to restrict their activities, and their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” said Deprose Muchena.

Amnesty International has noted many instances when supporters of the ruling NRM, unlike those of NUP and other parties, have gathered in large crowds unhindered by police.

During the last elections in 2016, police used the Public Order Management Act (POMA), a law that gave police excessive powers to prohibit public gatherings and protests, to disperse opposition rallies in a selective and partisan manner. On 26 March 2020, the Constitutional Court declared the section that gave police these overbroad powers illegal and unconstitutional.

Concerning rhetoric

Besides the high levels of violence by the police and other security forces, Amnesty International is concerned by the threatening rhetoric from senior government officials. Security Minister Gen Elly Tumwine said in Kampala in the aftermath of the police killings that: “Police has a right to shoot you and kill you if you reach a certain level of violence. Can I repeat? Police has a right or any security agency if you reach a certain level, they have a right.”

For his part, President Museveni, speaking at  a political rally in Kotido town, northern Uganda, warned people against protesting, saying they would be “crushed”. He has also increasingly taken to anti-LGBTI rhetoric, which is deeply concerning given Uganda’s history of attacks on gay people. “Some of these groups are being used by outsiders; the homosexuals and other groups outside there who don’t like the stability and independence of Uganda. But they will discover what they are looking for,” he said in Kotido.

Attacks on journalists

Amnesty International is also concerned about growing intimidation, harassment and attacks on journalists in the lead up to elections.

Human Rights Network for Journalists (HNRJ) Uganda has reported over 100 cases of human rights violations against journalists, including cases of police violence, especially when they are out covering political candidates. It says journalists have been teargassed, even when in branded cars showing the media outlets they work for.

The Foreign Correspondents Association of Uganda has reported at least three incidents of police attacks on its members. The association, which brings together foreign journalists and Ugandan journalists working for foreign media, reported that on 3 November, an international journalist was pepper-sprayed in the face by a police officer. Two days later, a Ugandan journalist working for international media was shot in the face by a policeman; and on 1 December, a foreign journalist was targeted and shot at close range with a rubber bullet.

More recently on 10 December, the Media Council cancelled the accreditation of all foreign journalists and directed them to apply for and obtain a “Special Media Pass” by 31 December. All media outlets and media workers in Uganda are also required to apply afresh for accreditation before 31 December.

On 27 November, three foreign journalists were arrested and deported despite having been duly accredited by the Media Council ahead of their entry into the country.

“Journalists in Uganda are facing an unprecedent level of violence and restrictions covering this election campaign where previously the authorities had allowed international media scrutiny. This intimidation, harassment and violence on journalists must stop,” said Deprose Muchena

“With a month to go to the polls, it is not too late for the Ugandan authorities to turn the tide and ensure respect for the human rights of everyone. Neither is it too late for the region, continent and the international community at large to speak out on the ongoing repression and crackdown on human rights in Uganda, and to push for the government to respect,  protect, promote and fulfil the rights of its own people.”

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