By Human Rights Watch
Ugandan authorities have failed to investigate the police and military responsible for killing more than 100 people in western Uganda in 2016, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a video featuring interviews with victims’ families.
Those killed on November 26 and 27, 2016 in Kasese, home of the Rwenzururu kingdom, included at least 15 children
“Ugandan officials won’t even ask why overwhelming lethal force was used that day and why children died, which shows a terrifying disdain for human life,” said Maria Burnett, East Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces shoot, kill, arrest, detain and torture civilians, charge them with serious crimes, such as treason, and yet the government only investigates the civilians, while giving the security forces a free pass to abuse again.”
The killings followed long-standing tensions, unresolved grievances, and sporadic violence between the government and the Rwenzururu kingdom, comprised of ethnic Bakonzo people, in Kasese and Bundibugyo districts in Uganda’s Rwenzori region.
Human Rights Watch had pressed the government for years, well before the November 2016 massacre, for an independent investigation into the killings of police and government soldiers and into abusive law enforcement operations in which scores of civilians had been killed. But instead of providing justice or responding meaningfully to local grievances, government forces carried out killings in Kasese town and in the kingdom’s palace, arguing those killed were all terrorists, despite evidence to the contrary.
In the aftermath of the November 2016 operation, the government charged hundreds of civilians, including six children, with treason, terrorism, and murder for the deaths of 15 police in six sub-counties outside the town of Kasese, among other crimes. At least 167 of the civilians remain in pre-trial detention. Many spent part of the time in Nalufenya police post in Jinja, Eastern Uganda, where numerous former detainees have said they were tortured.
At initial hearings against the accused in 2016, journalists observed significant untreated wounds on several of the defendants. The magistrate ordered an investigation into their treatment, but it remains pending. Until April this year, Nalufenya was a police special force operations base but police leadership has since redesignated Nalufenya as a standard police post, in part due to the many allegations of abuse. So far, no police have faced criminal charges for mistreatment of the detainees in Nalufenya.
In July 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 people in Kasese, including family members of those missing or killed in the November 2016 violence, as well as local government officials and found that many people still feared reprisals because of the ongoing security force presence in the district. In January 2017, Human Rights Watch had interviewed more than 95 people in six sub-counties of Kasese district and reviewed video and photographs of the events.
During the November 2016 operation, the military and police attacked the kingdom’s administration offices and the palace compound. But families of those killed in both locations remain without answers about why the killings occurred and who is responsible. Bismark Baluku, a 17-year-old student, was working as a cleaner at the administration offices of the kingdom’s prime minister when he was gunned down by soldiers on November 26.
“We fear to ask the government, ‘Why did you shoot our child who was an innocent person, who does not carry a panga [machete], who knows nothing of a gun?” Baluku’s uncle told Human Rights Watch. “We hear rumors that if you ask, you could be jailed.”
Sixteen-year-old Musokyi Biira Scovia, a cook and household worker for the king’s wife, lived in the palace. During the assault on November 27, she was shot and seriously injured and her father, James Baseka, who also worked in the palace, was killed. Soldiers loaded her onto a truck to send her to detention in Nalufenya, along with hundreds of others. She died on the way. Her body was taken to Kasese mortuary a few days later. “Our mouths are zipped,” said her mother. “Why doesn’t the government want us to speak out about our issues?”
Some families never received their loved one’s body for burial, despite requests. Government officials buried at least 52 people in graves inside the military barracks in Kasese, reporting that the bodies had not been claimed. Police medical director and pathologist, Dr. Moses Byaruhanga, recently confirmed to Human Rights Watch that DNA samples were taken and submitted to the Government Analytical Laboratory for “profiling.” He said families could approach police in Kasese if they wanted to provide DNA samples for possible matching and that testing would be free. Thus far, he said, no families had requested matching. No families interviewed by Human Rights Watch were aware of this offer.
The prolonged detention of 167 civilians, charged with treason, terrorism, and murder among other offenses, contrasts starkly with the complete absence of investigations into the security forces’ conduct and killings of civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
Some Kasese community members said that it remains dangerous for anyone previously associated with the kingdom’s royal guards – volunteers loyal to the kingdom who safeguard cultural sites, among other tasks, for the king – to come to the attention of security forces. In some cases, such allegations are reportedly being made to sow discord or settle personal scores. One local official said: “Since 26 November, people lived in fear and in anger against the government. If someone wants you to die, they can only say you are a royal guard and you are finished.”
The killings and large number of detentions have had a harsh economic impact on the community. One local chairman said that 33 of the people killed in November 2016 were from his subcounty, leaving over 200 children without a breadwinner in the family. “Most of those children are not going to school,” he told Human Rights Watch.
In February, without commenting on the killings, President Yoweri Museveni donated 10 motorcycles and 200 million Uganda shillings (US$ 52,000) to several different community groups in Kasese district, including one for royal guards’ widows and orphans.
The lack of investigations, coupled with families’ fears of reprisals if they speak out, means that there is no accurate, final death toll from November 2016. Human Rights Watch 2017 research concluded that at least 55 people died on November 26, including 14 police officers and one crime preventer in six different sub-counties and 8 people at the cultural institution’s offices on Alexander Street, and that on November 27 security forces killed more than 100 people during the assault on the palace compound.
After Human Rights Watch published its research, the government increased the official death toll from 87 to 103, explicitly including 16 police officers, but didn’t specify over what period. In April 2017, community activists compiled lists of dead and missing people, identifying 115 adults and 15 children killed on November 27 at the palace. Those killed on November 26 were not included.
New from @Hrw: Time to investigate Kasese killings of Nov 2016: Ugandan security forces shoot, kill, arrest, detain & torture civilians, charge them w serious crimes, such as treason, and yet the gov has given police & military a free pass to abuse again. https://t.co/uU1F0CFB8Z pic.twitter.com/mt2EczPhVi
— Maria Burnett (@MariaHRWAfrica) October 10, 2018
“The government’s failure to hold the security forces accountable for the massacre only fuels the perception that it does not protect all Ugandans equally,” Burnett said. “To prevent recurring cycles of violence, it is crucial for the government to show willingness to protect everyone, no matter their ethnicity, and to bring security forces – not only civilians – who commit crimes to justice.”