The East African - - FRONT PAGE - Nicholas Opiyo is a hu­man-rights lawyer work­ing with Chap­ter Four Uganda. Maria Bur­nett is the direc­tor for East/horn of Africa at Hu­man Rights Watch

New Uganda po­lice lead­er­ship prom­ises re­form, but can it re­ally pull it off?

Since tak­ing of­fice in March, Uganda’s new po­lice lead­er­ship has be­gun to ad­dress the many al­le­ga­tions of tor­ture by the force. But it has yet to take sub­stan­tive ac­tion. Un­less the po­lice, the direc­torate of pub­lic prose­cu­tions and the ju­di­ciary un­dergo sys­tem­atic re­form, de­fen­dants cur­rently de­tained on the ba­sis of con­fes­sions ex­tracted un­der tor­ture will con­tinue to pro­ceed through the courts and al­le­ga­tions of mis­treat­ment will resur­face.

The new In­spec­tor Gen­eral of Po­lice, Martin Okoth-ochola, has for­mally re­in­stated the Nalufenya de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity to its pre­vi­ous sta­tus as a reg­u­lar po­lice sta­tion. Nalufenya was no­to­ri­ous as a lo­ca­tion from which de­tainees of­ten came to court bear­ing open wounds from tor­ture. Many for­mer de­tainees have de­tailed in the press their hor­ren­dous treat­ment at the fa­cil­ity at the hands of both the po­lice and other se­cu­rity out­fits. Okoth-ochola has also for­mally dis­banded the dreaded Fly­ing Squad, a po­lice unit also known for abus­ing sus­pects, and moved the com­man­der to an­other post. But there has been no in­di­ca­tion of in­ter­est in an open and trans­par­ent in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the nu­mer­ous al­le­ga­tions of tor­ture by the Fly­ing Squad or at Nalufenya.

Much more re­mains to be done. Chang­ing Nalufenya’s sta­tus with­out deal­ing with the sys­temic abuses that oc­curred there amounts to lit­tle more than a su­per­fi­cial ef­fort to im­prove the im­age of the po­lice. It gives a false sense of com­mit­ment to re­solv­ing the deep in­sti­tu­tional malaise un­der which Uganda’s po­lice have op­er­ated; it is, in short, a pub­lic-re­la­tions ex­er­cise.

And the Fly­ing Squad was only the most re­cent of a string of po­lice units with abu­sive and cor­rupt rep­u­ta­tions, and fol­lowed the dis­banded units Oper­a­tion Wembley, Vi­o­lent Crimes Crack Unit and Rapid Re­sponse Unit. Those units were all shut down af­ter a pub­lic out­cry over their treat­ment of de­fen­dants and at times, of the gen­eral pub­lic. Yet the Fly­ing Squad main­tained their vi­cious out­look, prac­tices, fa­cil­i­ties and in large part, per­son­nel.

While pre­vi­ous units used the Kireka de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity in Kam­pala, the Fly­ing Squad pri­mar­ily used the Nalufenya fa­cil­ity in Jinja, along­side sev­eral “safe houses” – ungazetted places of de­ten­tion where sus­pects were never for­mally reg­is­tered or charged and were rou­tinely mis­treated. In some lo­ca­tions, the Fly­ing Squad re­sorted to us­ing gazetted po­lice sta­tions. Sus­pects would be ar­rested, sub­jected to grue­some tor­ture and handed to the po­lice sta­tions with an or­der to de­tain them.

From our own con­ver­sa­tions with force per­son­nel, we un­der­stand that some po­lice and their com­man­ders lived in fear of the Fly­ing Squad op­er­a­tives and the ex­trale­gal means they em­ployed. They would not en­ter their sus­pects in the crime reg­is­ter book, a pre­req­ui­site for de­ten­tion in po­lice cells. Sus­pects were of­ten col­lected in the mid­dle of the night to be tor­tured and re­turned to de­ten­tion only if they sur­vived.

The me­dia re­ported re­cently that the Fly­ing Squad has been re­for­mu­lated into an elite squad un­der the name Or­gan­ised Crime Depart­ment (OCD). If ac­cu­rate, this is deeply wor­ry­ing news, be­cause giv­ing a unit a new name but staffing it with the same per­son­nel will change noth­ing. Ef­fec­tive and sys­tem­atic vet­ting of all per­son­nel re­cruited to the new OCD – which should in­clude spe­cific ef­forts to so­licit in­for­ma­tion about their past con­duct, in­clud­ing from peo­ple cur­rently de­tained in Uganda’s pris­ons in cases ini­ti­ated by the Fly­ing Squad – is es­sen­tial if there is to be any ex­pec­ta­tion that the con­duct of these of­fi­cers will meet the ba­sic stan­dards for the treat­ment of sus­pects and de­fen­dants un­der Ugan­dan or in­ter­na­tional law.

The po­lice lead­er­ship, po­lice pro­fes­sional stan­dards of­fi­cials and the direc­tor of pub­lic prose­cu­tions will need to work to­gether to en­sure that Fly­ing Squad per­son­nel in­volved in the mis­treat­ment and tor­ture of sus­pects – or in com­mand­ing abu­sive op­er­a­tions – face in­di­vid­ual crim­i­nal ac­count­abil­ity. Uganda passed the Pre­ven­tion and Pro­hi­bi­tion of Tor­ture Act (PPTA) in 2012 but it re­mains un­der­used as a tool to ad­dress im­punity for tor­ture.

Okoth-ochola faces an­other sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem – the shad­owy para­mil­i­tary out­fits op­er­at­ing on the mar­gins of the po­lice that ap­pear to have an im­plicit li­cence to shoot, kill, tor­ture or maim sus­pects. In po­lit­i­cally tense sit­u­a­tions, wit­nesses have of­ten de­scribed non-uni­formed groups that ap­pear, some­times along­side the Fly­ing Squad, and pro­ceed to beat pro­tes­tors, jour­nal­ists or oth­ers. They have been re­ferred to as the Ki­boko Squad, and ul­ti­mately were masked men work­ing along­side uni­formed po­lice.

In many cases, wit­nesses said these men gave or­ders to po­lice of­fi­cers, who du­ti­fully obeyed. At times jour­nal­ists at the scene would cap­ture the bru­tal­ity of these masked men in broad day­light on film, but the po­lice would deny any

knowl­edge of Il­lus­tra­tion : John Nyaga who they were. How­ever, nei­ther did the po­lice do any­thing to stop their abuses or ar­rest them for their un­law­ful be­hav­iour.

The po­lice lead­er­ship needs to dis­band all of Uganda’s un­reg­u­lated para­mil­i­tary out­fits in­clud­ing Ki­boko Squad, the Boda Boda 2010, Crime Preven­ters and Kifeesi and other such units created by the past ad­min­is­tra­tion, and make this move un­equiv­o­cal and pub­lic.

Okoth-ochola and his se­nior com­man­ders also need to con­duct a trans­par­ent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into these groups’ past con­duct with a view to pros­e­cut­ing per­son­nel who com­mit­ted se­ri­ous crimes.

Re­cent ac­counts in the Ugan­dan me­dia sug­gest that if vic­tims are en­cour­aged to come for­ward and share their ex­pe­ri­ences, there will be no short­age of wit­nesses for the in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Such an in­ves­ti­ga­tion would at once send a strong mes­sage by the po­lice lead­er­ship that they dis­ap­prove of such un­law­ful acts and that they will not tol­er­ate fu­ture abuses.

Fi­nally, the dis­cus­sion around the cre­ation of a new, gen­uinely in­de­pen­dent po­lice over­sight body needs to com­mence in earnest. The Pro­fes­sional Stan­dards Unit and the Po­lice Dis­ci­plinary Court have demon­strated that they are un­able to mean­ing­fully hold abu­sive po­lice to ac­count. These in­sti­tu­tions have be­come ei­ther av­enues for vin­dic­tive ac­tions against ju­nior po­lice of­fi­cers or are used to cir­cum­vent crim­i­nal prose­cu­tions by us­ing an ad­min­is­tra­tive process to deal with crim­i­nal acts. In most in­stances, their pun­ish­ment is not com­men­su­rate with the crime, mak­ing a mock­ery of the vic­tims and the process it­self.

Uganda’s cur­rent po­lice lead­er­ship has de­clared it is will­ing to take dif­fi­cult steps to re­form the po­lice. Those steps must not be merely sym­bolic, but should help en­sure Uganda’s po­lice be­come a pro-peo­ple, non-par­ti­san and pro­fes­sional force. Oth­er­wise Okoth-ochola’s legacy, like that of his pre­de­ces­sor, will be one of shame.

The po­lice lead­er­ship needs to dis­band all of Uganda’s un­reg­u­lated para­mil­i­tary out­fits, in­clud­ing Ki­boko Squad, the Boda Boda 2010, Crime Preven­ters and Kifeesi

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