Uganda is a constitutional republic led since 1986 by President Yoweri Museveni of the National Resistance Movement party. In 2016 voters re-elected Museveni to a fifth five-year term and returned a National Resistance Movement majority to the unicameral parliament. Allegations of disenfranchisement and voter intimidation, harassment of the opposition, closure of social media websites, and lack of transparency and independence in the Electoral Commission marred the elections, which fell short of international standards. The periods before, during, and after the elections were marked by a closing of political space, intimidation of journalists, and widespread use of torture by the security agencies.
The national police maintain internal security, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees the police. While the army is responsible for external security, the president detailed army officials to leadership roles within the police force. The Ministry of Defense oversees the army. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by government forces, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearance; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government agencies; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecution of journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and the existence of the worst forms of child labor.
The government was reluctant to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government, and impunity was a problem.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices. The law stipulates that any person convicted of an act of torture may receive a sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment, a monetary fine, or both. The penalty for conviction of aggravated torture is life imprisonment. Nevertheless, there were credible reports security forces tortured and physically abused suspects.
Human rights organizations, opposition politicians, and local media reported that security forces tortured dissidents as punishment for their opposition to the government. On April 24, local television stations showed images of opposition Member of Parliament (MP) Francis Zaake receiving medical treatment at the Iran-Uganda hospital in Naguru. The UPF and Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) had arrested Zaake at his home in Mityana District on April 19, accusing him of violating COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings when he distributed food to his constituents. On May 6, Zaake told journalists that upon his arrest, UPF officers under the watch of Mityana District police commander Alex Mwine and regional police commander Bob Kagarura beat him with sticks and batons, kicked him on his head, and then tied his legs and hands to suspend him under the bench in the flatbed on a police pickup truck, which drove him to the headquarters of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) in Mbuya. He said CMI officials sprayed his eyes with an unknown liquid that created a sharp burning sensation, then later beat him with a stick bearing sharp objects that tore at his skin. He said UPF officers then drove him to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) offices in Kireka, where UPF officers kicked, slapped, and punched him while telling him to quit politics, quit opposing the government, and retire to business. Zaake said his health deteriorated further while in detention, and on April 22, the UPF drove him to the Iran-Uganda hospital in Naguru for treatment. According to a Ministry of Internal Affairs document, the Iran-Uganda hospital found that Zaake had “blunt injuries on the forehead, earlobes, right and left of the chest, right side flank, right upper arm, right wrist, lower lip, left leg, and left leg shin.” On April 27, a court in Kampala ordered the UPF to release Zaake or arraign him in court. That same day the UPF drove Zaake, dressed only in shorts and unable to walk, to a court in Mityana. UPF officers carried him on a stretcher into the courtroom where a magistrate declined to hear the charges against Zaake and ordered the UPF to take him to hospital for medical treatment. The UPF, however, drove Zaake back to the SIU, where they detained him for another night and then released him on April 28. On May 6, the minister for internal affairs concluded that Zaake must have inflicted his injuries on himself “by knocking himself on the metal of the UPF police pickup truck.” On May 7, Zaake sued CMI commander Abel Kandiho, Mityana police commander Alex Mwine, SIU commander Elly Womanya, and three others for abusing him. On September 3, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) exercised its constitutional right and took over Zaake’s private suit against the security officers. Zaake told local media on September 3 that the ODPP had taken over the case in order to exonerate his abusers by putting up a dispirited prosecution, which would lead the court to issue an acquittal. The trial continued at year’s end. The ODPP also dropped its charges against Zaake on August 6.
Civil society organizations and opposition activists reported that security forces arrested, beat, and killed civilians as punishment for allegedly violating regulations to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 18, the president announced restrictions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, which included an indefinite closure of all schools and a ban on religious gatherings, which he would later expand to include a nighttime curfew, restrictions on public and private transport, and a closure of nonessential business (see section 2.d.). The president instructed police and military to enforce the regulations. Local media reported LDU and UPF officers indiscriminately beat persons they found outside after the nighttime curfew with sticks, batons, and gunstocks, maiming some and killing others. On May 13, LDU officers shot primary school teacher Eric Mutasiga in the leg and chest, as he pleaded with the officers not to arrest his neighbor, whom the officers had found selling food three minutes into a nighttime curfew. On June 8, Mutasiga died of the gunshot wounds at Mulago hospital. The UPF stated it had arrested the LDU officers involved but declared Mutasiga was injured when he got into a scuffle with the security officers. At year’s end the UPF had not released details of its investigations into the killing. LDU and UPF personnel also attacked pregnant women who sought health care during periods when the government restricted use of public transport due to COVID-19.
On April 4, local media reported that on the night of April 3, UPF, LDU, and UPDF officers had raided a community in Elegu Town, driven dozens of persons out of their houses, beaten them with sticks and iron bars, and forced them to remove their clothes, roll in the dirt, and for some specifically to rub the dirt on their genitals, accusing them of violating the curfew. The UPDF and UPF released statements condemning the actions and promised to prosecute the officers involved. By year’s end the UPF and UPDF had not released findings from their investigations.
Impunity was a problem, and it was widespread in the UPF, UPDF, the Uganda Prisons Service (UPS), and the executive branch. The security forces did not take adequate measures to investigate and bring to account officers implicated in human rights abuses, especially in incidents involving members of the political opposition. The UPDF did not arrest or prosecute the LDU officer whom amateur cellphone video showed shooting into a crowd of opposition supporters and killing Daniel Kyeyune (see section 1.a.). Impunity was widespread because authorities gave political and judicial cover to officials who committed human rights violations. While speaking on November 29 about the November 18-19 protests, President Museveni directed police to investigate and audit the killings of 20 unarmed protesters struck by stray bullets, but not of the other 34 unarmed protesters, who he said were rioters (see section 1.e.). On August 22, President Museveni commended the UPDF’s Special Forces Command (SFC) officers who beat Kyagulanyi in August 2018. Speaking at a police recruits graduation ceremony, Museveni stated: “I found the man (Kyagulanyi) had been beaten properly, in the right way. He boxed them, and they also tried to box back until they subdued him. I was surprised that the SFC people acted properly; it was self-defense and beyond self-defense they didn’t beat. It was in order.” The government also provided legal services to police and prison officers facing charges of abuse in court. On September 23, the Attorney General’s Office sent one of its lawyers to defend UPS officer Philemon Woniala in a civil court case that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons filed against him in his individual capacity, accusing him of torture and inhuman treatment. The law bars government lawyers from defending officials sued in their individual capacity (see section 6). On July 20, the UPDF instituted human rights refresher training courses for its LDU officers to increase respect for human rights.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in detention centers remained harsh and in some cases life-threatening. Serious problems included overcrowding, physical abuse of detainees by security staff and fellow inmates, inadequate food, and understaffing. Reports of forced labor continued. Most prisons did not have accommodations for persons with disabilities. The government operated unofficial detention facilities where it detained suspects for years without charge.
Physical Conditions: Gross overcrowding remained a problem. On August 7, the UPS reported its prison population had risen from 59,000 to 65,000 in four months after security forces arrested numerous individuals for defying COVID-19 restrictions. The UPS said this population was more than three times its capacity, although other data from the nongovernmental organization (NGO) World Prison Brief showed the prison detainees held were actually at 375 percent of prisons’ capacity.
Local NGOs and the UHRC declared overcrowding made the prisons a potential hotspot for the spread of COVID-19. On May 18, local media reported that some UPF posts kept male and female detainees in the same cell, and others kept adult detainees together with child detainees. On November 13, UPF officers in Oyam District arrested six NUP party officials for violating COVID-19 restrictions at an election campaign rally and detained both female and male officials in the same cell.
There were reports of deaths in prisons due to prison conditions. On February 20, local media reported that three pretrial detainees died in Atopi prison after they went to work on a prison farm despite reporting in the morning that they were ill. Prison authorities said they were carrying out postmortems to establish the causes of death but did not report the findings. Political prisoners faced different conditions from those of the general population. Zaake’s lawyers reported in April that UPF officers denied Zaake medical care.
Administration: Authorities did not always carry out investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment. The local civil society organization Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum reported in June that UPS officials beat lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) detainees on account of their sexual orientation. UPS officials denied this and declined to investigate (see section 6). Local media and human rights activists reported that the UPF, UPDF, CMI, ISO, and UPS denied access to visitors for some detainees held at official and unofficial detention facilities (safe houses) (see section 6).
Independent Monitoring: The UPS reported in August that due to COVID-19 restrictions, it stopped visitors from accessing prison facilities. The UPS, however, reported that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it allowed the local civil society organization African Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims to conduct prison visits with advance notification; however, no independent monitors received access to any unregistered detention facilities or pretrial detention cells. The International Committee of the Red Cross declined to comment on whether it conducted prison visits during the year.
Improvements: The UPS reported in August that the president had pardoned 2,833 prisoners to decongest prisons and help prevent the spread of COVID-19, although this was only half the number of detainees that entered prison between March and August. The pardoned detainees largely comprised convicts of petty offenses serving less than two-year sentences, mothers of infants, and convicts older than age 60. The Ministry of Health donated four modern tuberculosis-testing machines to the UPS, which improved the prisons’ capacity to quickly diagnose and treat the disease.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, security forces often arbitrarily arrested and detained persons, especially opposition leaders, politicians, activists, demonstrators, journalists, LGBTI persons, and members of the general population accused of violating COVID-19 restrictions. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge the lawfulness of their arrest or detention in court, but this mechanism was seldom employed and rarely successful.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government often restricted this right.
Freedom of Speech: The government restricted citizens’ ability to criticize its actions or to discuss matters of general public concern. It also restricted some political symbols. The UPF randomly attacked and arrested persons it found wearing camouflage clothing, red berets, and red insignia associated with Kyagulanyi’s People Power political movement and the NUP party, which the security agencies stated were reserved for use by security forces (see section 3). Military police officers wear red berets, which feature a distinct logo from those on the berets that NUP supporters wear. Human Rights Watch reported that on July 24, the UPF raided the premises of Radio Simba FM station in Kampala and arrested four comedians (Julius Serwanja, Simon Peter Ssabakaki, Merceli Mbabali, and Gold Kimatono), accusing them of promoting sectarianism and “causing hatred and unnecessary apprehension.” On July 15, the comedians had posted on the internet a satirical video of a mock prayer session, in which they asked a mock congregation to pray for specific political, public service, and military leaders including the president, all hailing from the western region. On July 28, a court ordered the UPF to release the comedians, which the police did.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The country had an active media environment with numerous privately owned newspapers and television and radio stations. These media outlets regularly covered stories and often provided commentary critical of the government and officials. The UPF’s Media and Political Crimes Unit and the communications regulator Uganda Communications Commission, however, closely monitored all radio, television, and print media. The government restricted media.
Violence and Harassment: Security forces subjected journalists and media houses to violence, harassment, deportations, and intimidation. On December 10, the Uganda Media Council (UMC) cancelled all existing accreditations for foreign journalists and required them to reregister within a week to be able to continue working in the country. On November 30, journalist Margaret Evans, working with the Canadian CBC News, reported that immigration authorities had deported her and her team after the UMC cancelled their accreditation. In response to Evans’s comments that the government was avoiding outside scrutiny ahead of the elections, government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo stated the government reserved the right to admit or refuse admission to foreign persons, including journalists, and it did not need outside scrutiny to qualify its electoral process as credible. Opondo later added that Evans’ team had violated provisions of their tourist visas and that they were welcome to reapply for a visa that allowed them to work as journalists in the country. The Human Rights Network for Journalists Uganda (HRNJU) reported in January that the UPF blocked journalists from covering opposition rallies, confiscated their recording equipment, and forcibly deleted the content. On July 22, the UPF arrested five journalists working at Baba FM radio station, accusing them of inciting violence and disobeying lawful orders. On July 18, the journalists had hosted opposition politician Kyagulanyi on Baba FM for a political talk show. Police released the journalists on July 23 without charge. The HRNJU reported numerous incidents between April and August when UPF, UPDF, and LDU officers beat, detained, and confiscated equipment of journalists covering implementation of the COVID-19 restrictions. On April 13, CMI officers arrested blogger and Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) activist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who had published a book ridiculing the president and his family. Rukirabashaija stated that CMI officers chained him by the legs and hands to stair railings through the night. On April 21, the UPF arraigned Rukirabashaija in court and formerly charged him with “doing an act likely to spread disease,” in relation to Facebook posts he made critical of the COVID-19 restrictions. The court granted him bail on May 6. The trial continued at year’s end (see also section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest). On September 18, CMI officials again arrested Rukirabashaija in relation to an unpublished manuscript detailing his torture during the earlier arrest. CMI officers transferred him to SIU, whose officers stated they were investigating Rukirabashaija for inciting violence and promoting sectarianism. SIU officers released Rukirabashaija on September 21 without charge. On November 18, local media broadcast images of a UPF officer spraying pepper spray into the eyes of journalist Ashraf Kasirye as he recorded other UPF officers arrest Kyagulanyi while holding a presidential election campaign (see section 1.e.).
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized those who published items counter to its guidelines and directly and indirectly censored media, including by controlling licensing and advertising, instructing editors to suspend critical journalists, arresting and beating journalists, and disrupting and ransacking photojournalistic exhibitions. Government officials and ruling party members owned many of the private rural radio stations and imposed reporting restrictions. Media practitioners said government and security agents occasionally called editors and instructed them not to publish stories that negatively portrayed the government. Journalists, under government pressure, practiced self-censorship. On August 1, the UPF wrote to Victoria Broad Link radio in Jinja City and instructed it not to host the opposition Democratic Party President Norbert Mao for a talk show. The UPF letter stated that hosting Mao “conflicted with COVID-19 guidelines of implementing curfew.” The UPF also noted in the letter, however, that the radio station could host Mao via a Zoom internet connection and only if the discussion topics stayed clear of politics.
Libel/Slander Laws: Authorities used libel, defamation, and slander laws to suppress criticism of government officials. On May 7, the UPF arrested human rights lawyer Isaac Ssemakadde, accusing him of breaching the law on offensive communication and criminal libel after he posted a tweet criticizing the newly installed director of public prosecutions, Jane Francis Abodo. The UPF released Ssemakadde later that day without formal charges.
National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to restrict criticism of government policies. On December 9, the Ugandan Communications Commission wrote a letter to Google asking the company to block certain YouTube accounts for disseminating content “contrary” to the country’s laws after they posted videos showing security force abuses. Security agencies arrested numerous dissidents on charges of incitement of violence. On the evening of April 20, UPF officers stopped journalist Samson Kasumba outside the NBS TV offices and arrested him after he completed his evening newscast. UPF officials declared they detained Kasumba over his alleged involvement in subversive activities. The UPF kept Kasumba at the Kira Road Police Station, and on April 21, UPF officers from the Electoral and Political Crimes desk carried out a search of Kasumba’s home. The UPF released Kasumba soon thereafter.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Consensual same-sex sexual conduct is criminalized according to a colonial-era law that criminalizes “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” and provides for a penalty of up to life imprisonment. Attempts to “commit unnatural offences,” as laid out in the law, are punishable with seven years of imprisonment. The government occasionally enforced the law. Although the law does not restrict freedoms of expression or peaceful assembly for those speaking out in support of the human rights of LGBTI persons, the government severely restricted such rights. The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, or access to government services.
LGBTI persons faced discrimination, legal restrictions, harassment, violence, and intimidation. Authorities incited, perpetrated, and tolerated violence against LGBTI individuals and blocked some meetings organized by LGBTI persons and activists. On July 19, local government authorities in Kyenjojo Town disrupted a meeting of LGBTI persons organized by the Western Uganda Faith-based Organizations Network, accusing it of breaching COVID-19 rules. Local civil society organizations reported that public and private health-care services turned away LGBTI persons who sought medication and some health-care providers led community members to beat LGBTI persons who sought health care. Local civil society organizations reported that some LGBTI persons needed to pay bribes to public health-care providers before they received treatment. According to civil society organizations, UPF and LDU officers–together with local government officials–raided the Children of the Sun Foundation shelter in Kyengera Town on March 29 and arrested 20 LGBTI persons, accusing them of violating COVID-19 public health guidelines by gathering in a closed space. Activists said the mayor of Kyengera, Abdul Kiyimba, personally beat two of the suspects “as he questioned them about their homosexuality.” Lawyers for the group reported prison authorities repeatedly denied them access to their clients while in pretrial detention, citing government restrictions on movement aimed at combatting COVID-19. On May 15, after the LGBTI persons’ lawyers filed suit, the UPS granted the lawyers access to the 20 LGBTI persons, two of whom stated UPS wardens subjected them to forced anal exams. On May 19, the UPS released 19 LGBTI persons, after the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution dropped all charges on May 15. The UPS released the final person on May 27. LGBTI activists reported on July 21 that they had sued the Kitalya prison deputy commander, Philemon Woniala, and Kyengera mayor Abdul Kiyimba for torture and inhuman treatment. The case continued at year’s end.