President Yoweri Museveni had on March 30 directed the police to arrest politicians who distribute food after he banned public and private transport, suspended non-essential services, and closed non-food markets to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The government said that food donations had to go through a government-organized task force.
Zaake, an opposition lawmaker, was reportedly tortured after security forces arrested him for distributing food to constituents on April 19. He was released on bond late on Monday.
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The release came after Mityana Chief Magistrate, Kakooza Erias, refused to hear a case against him— ordering Police to take him for treatment.
According to a charge sheet, the Police had planned to charge him with two counts including negligent acts likely to spread the infection to coronavirus contrary to section 171 of the penal code act, a report said.
“The prosecution alleged that MP Zaake on April 19 flouted lawful guidelines in relation to public gatherings and Presidential directives on coronavirus and that he negligently distributed food to communities without putting in place necessary measures to stop the spread of COVID-19,” local newspaper, PML Daily said.
“Mr. Zaake Francis on the 19th Day of April 2020 at Buswabulongo Village in Mityana District distributed food to the Buswabulongo Community negligently without taking necessary precautions, an act which was and which he knew too he likely to spread the coronavirus which causes COVID-19, a disease dangerous to life,” the office of the DPP said.
Zaake was picked up by police at his home in Mityana, about 70 kilometers north of Kampala, and held at the Special Investigations Unit in Kireka, Kampala, and initially denied his lawyers and family members access to him.
On April 22, police transferred Zaake to the Iran-Uganda Hospital in Naguru, where he was being treated for an undisclosed condition while remaining in police custody. The police have denied reports that Zaake was tortured, but three witnesses who saw Zaake told Human Rights Watch that he was unable to walk and appeared to have been severely beaten.
Paul Mwiru, a parliament member who managed to visit Zaake while he was in detention in Kireka, told Human Rights Watch that Zaake could not see and had flesh missing from his chest: “They had beaten his back. He had a lot of bruises in the face. He would not move, because they had hit him so badly.”
“Police brutality is always prohibited, pandemic or no pandemic,” said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Uganda’s authorities should urgently look into these allegations and hold those responsible to account.”
Human Rights Watch said while enforcing the government’s COVID-19 measures, security forces have beaten, arbitrarily arrested, and shot civilians, including vendors, journalists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that security forces, purportedly enforcing these measures, have harassed or assaulted at least six journalists since March 19.
“The coronavirus pandemic does not give the government and authorities the right to attack critics and opposition members or dispense with due process,” Nyeko said. “The government should ensure that Zaake gets all necessary quality health care, investigate these serious allegations of torture, and follow up with appropriate action.”