A new report by the international rights body — Human Rights Watch (HRW), has criticized government for turning a blind eye to the killings of at least nine people by security forces during the 2011 ‘walk-to-work’ demonstrations.
The report, released on Friday, accused the police of failing to investigate the killings and bring culprits to book. Police is also accused of being one of the perpetrators of the lethal force used in breaking up demonstrations in which lives and property were lost.
The protests began in April 2011 after the opposition-led Activists for Change (A4C), a group that identifies itself as non-partisan and non-profit group, mobilized the public to ‘foster peaceful change in the management of public affairs’ by walking to work to protest the escalating food and fuel prices.
The government contended that the action constituted an unlawful assembly and vowed to stop it. Several opposition politicians, including two former presidential candidates, were arrested for walking and charged severally with unlawful assembly and inciting violence.
HRW also issued a new video in which relatives of the victims explained the impact of police’s brutality on their families and their struggle to secure justice and compensation.
According to the report, the families of those killed tried to push for justice and seek compensation, but their calls went unheeded. The killings left families with the burden of educating up to a dozen children per family.
The brother of one victim told HRW: “We want justice but we lack the capacity to seek it and we do not know where to start anymore. Our interest is not only compensation from the government; there is no amount of money that equals the life that was taken away. [My brother] had his responsibilities, he had children to educate, he had wives to take care of, he was still a young man and he had a bright future ahead of him.”
In the video, Ruth Nabejja, who lost her brother Wilber Mugalazi, accuses police of deliberately shooting him dead.
“Government has authority and control over armed forces; so, it is responsible for his death,” she said.
Ronald Kiberu, who also lost his brother Frank Kizito in the riots, says his family is contemplating suing government for the death of his brother, arguing that it failed to protect people and their property.
The report notes that, two years on, the government has only made arrests in connection with one killing, and has not undertaken credible investigations into the others despite widespread calls for an inquiry in 2011. The official inaction underscores the need for an independent investigation, HRW said.
“Despite commitments two years ago to investigate the 2011 killings, the victims have seen no more than a few days of hearings – only in the highly-publicized death of a two-year-old – and even that was over a year ago,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at HRW, in the report.
She said: “The use of live ammunition by other security force members during the protests had not been investigated.
After the protests, police acknowledged that well over 100 people were injured and over 600 arrested countrywide, during several days of protests. HRW investigated the abuses in 2011, interviewed more than 60 people – including victims and their relatives, witnesses, medical staff, civil society, police, military, and journalists.
HRW documented at least nine cases in which unarmed people had been killed by government forces – six in Kampala, two in Gulu, and one in Masaka. None of them were actively involved in rioting. HRW did not find evidence that protesters had guns or other potential lethal means at their disposal.
The report asks government to institute an independent inquiry into the killings and also compensate the victims’ families. In June 2011, over 105 Ugandan and international NGOs and unions wrote to the president, urging him to set up a transparent process promptly to investigate human rights abuses during the April protests and to hold accountable anyone found responsible for criminal acts, particularly incidents in which people were killed or wounded. However, to date nothing has been done.
In contrast, police took prompt action when a protest march led to a police fatality on March 21, 2012, when police officer John Bosco Ariong died from a head injury after a confrontation erupted between police and some opposition leaders in Kampala.
Police immediately arrested scores of people. The government blamed A4C, a claim their leadership publicly denied. Ultimately, one person was charged with the murder. Fifteen others, including former FDC leader, Dr Kizza Besigye and Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago were charged with unlawful assembly. The case is awaiting trial.
“Those responsible for Ariong’s death should be held accountable, but it should not be a pretext to outlaw legitimate political activity,” Burnett said. “The killings in April 2011 deserve equal scrutiny.”
“Donors should offer international expertise to conduct credible, independent investigations into the April 2011 killings,” the report says in conclusion.
However, the police has refuted the HRW report. Patrick Onyango, the acting deputy Police spokesperson, described the report as biased. “Human Rights Watch didn’t ask us [police] on how far we had gone with investigations before releasing their report,” Onyango said.
He stressed: “Investigations are not [done] in one day. We are still investigating those killings, and we shall inform the public of our findings as soon as investigations are complete,” he said.