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Uganda: Human Rights Watch Finds Ongoing Use of Torture, Illegal Detention

(Mar. 25, 2011) On March 23, 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report documenting how the Government of Uganda, through its Rapid Response Unit under the Ugandan police, routinely practices illegal detention and torture, and sometimes extrajudicial killing, of citizens. The RRU, established in 2007 to investigate violent crime, “often subjects suspects to vicious beatings to force confessions,” the report states, and “then hands civilian suspects to military courts for prosecution to skirt safeguards in the civilian court system.” (HRW, Violence Instead of Vigilance: Torture and Illegal Detention by Uganda’s Rapid Response Unit (Mar. 2011); Alexandra Malatesta, Uganda Police Increasingly Using Torture, Killings: HRW, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Mar. 23, 2011).)

The report, which is based on more than 100 interviews with victims as well as former and current RRU members, conducted during a period of over a year, also details the extortion of money from suspects and robbery victims; the use of excessive force during arrest, including beatings; public parading of criminal suspects; and theft of evidence. It notes that “impunity for such actions remains the norm,” while acknowledging that “in an important and positive step, police in August 2010 arrested three RRU officers accused of beating a suspect to death.” (HRW, supra, at 56.) The report provides background information on the RRU as well as on its predecessors, Operation Wembley and the Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU). According to HRW,

The precise mandate of RRU remains unclear in practice. Since 2007, media reports have documented RRU agents carrying out numerous and varied tasks including patrolling during by-elections;arresting journalists for covering specific stories; investigating financial fraud;counterfeiting;impersonation;stealing vehicles, money, livestock, and fuel—all without allegations that suspects were carrying weapons;as well as instances of issuing fake checks,stealing from empty hotel rooms prior to the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala,and cases of alleged terrorism. (Id. at 17.)

Another factor contributing to the continued use of torture in Uganda is the absence of counsel during the interrogation of suspects; even though all suspects have the legal right to a lawyer, “in practice, defendants do not receive a state-provided lawyer until their case is at trial and often spend years in detention before they ever meet a lawyer.” (Id. at 4.)

The HRW report also contains, among other sections, a section on applicable national and international law and one on recommendations to the President and the government, the police force, the judiciary, and the legislature, among other bodies.