(Nairobi) – Police and prosecutors in Uganda have turned a blind eye to the killings of at least nine people by security forces during protests in April 2011. Human Rights Watch issued a video in which relatives of the victims explain the impact on their families and their struggle to secure justice and compensation.
The accounts from the families themselves should drive home to the government the urgent need to fulfill its obligation to conduct an independent and thorough investigation into the deaths and hold security forces accountable. 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.
“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 2-year-old –and even that was over a year ago,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher. “The use of live ammunition by other security force members during the protests has not been investigated. The lives of everyone who was killed had value and their families deserve justice.”
Protests began in April 2011 after Activists for Change (A4C), a group that identifies itself as non-partisan and non-profit, called on the public to “foster peaceful change in the management of public affairs” by walking to work to protest 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 several times with unlawful assembly and inciting violence.
Security forces responded to the protests with brutality – killing, beating, and arbitrarily arresting protesters and bystanders. In some instances protesters turned aggressive, throwing stones and burning debris on the roads. Police acknowledged that well over 100 people were injured and over 600 were arrested countrywide during several days of protests.
Human Rights Watch investigated the abuses in 2011, interviewing more than 60 people – including victims and their relatives, witnesses, medical staff, civil society, police, military, and journalists. Human Rights Watch 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. Human Rights Watch did not find evidence that protesters had guns or other potential lethal means at their disposal. In at least three incidents that Human Rights Watch documented, security forces were hit by pelted rocks and injured.
At the police’s request, Human Rights Watch shared some of its investigations, including the name of a policeman widely believed to be responsible for one killing in the Namasuba area of Kampala, with police in July 2011. Police leadership accepted the accuracy of the names, dates, and locations of the deaths that Human Rights Watch provided. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any subsequent action to investigate the killings, however. No recent arrests have been made and relatives of the victims told Human Rights Watch that police have not been in contact since 2011.
“Publicly, government officials have often contended that those killed in April 2011 were anti-government and were inciting violence, but without credible investigations that argument sounds like a partisan cover-up for serious abuses by the police and military,” Burnett said.
Numerous witnesses corroborated accounts that security forces failed to distinguish between people actively participating in riots and bystanders. Witnesses also told Human Rights Watch that security forces responded to stone-throwing demonstrators by throwing teargas canisters directly at people or into houses or firing randomly into crowded areas.
For example on April 29, a uniformed military police officer wearing a red beret shot several rounds into the Owino Parkyard Market in Kampala. One shot hit Ssemuga Kanabi, a market vendor, in his chest as he tried to take cover. Kanabi died instantly.
In another incident in the Masajja area of Kampala, soldiers patrolling in armored personnel carriers randomly beat people they found by the roadside. Police and plain-clothes security officers were also deployed. Frank Kizito, a father of six, was shot while attempting to do errands for his family. At around 1 p.m. witnesses said Kizito fell to the ground as a police officer wearing a blue camouflage uniform fired in his direction. Police allegedly told mortuary staff that Kizito had been injured by rioters, a claim clearly contradicted by the witnesses. The official cause of death was confirmed as a gunshot wound.
Families of those killed have tried to push for justice and seek compensation, but their calls have gone unheeded. The April killings left families with the burden of school fees for upkeep of over a dozen children who, in most cases, lost their breadwinner.
The brother of one victim told Human Rights Watch: “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.