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The disappeared: The Ugandan army has abducted hundreds of opposition activists

Many detainees say they were tortured


The soldiers came for him a week before the election in January. He says they smashed open his door with a hammer, threw a hood over his head, then bundled him into a waiting minibus. Michael (not his real name) spent the next six weeks in detention, mostly in a cell beneath the headquarters of Uganda’s military intelligence service. “Do you know that this country has its owners?” soldiers allegedly told Michael, while beating him with gun butts and sticks.

Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, certainly acts as though he owns it. The former rebel admits that the army has “arrested” more than 300 civilians in recent months. Most of them, including Michael, are supporters of Bobi Wine (pictured), a pop star and politician who was the leading opposition candidate in the election. They are typically held for long periods before being charged, without access to their lawyers. Many say they were tortured. Others have gone missing altogether: Mr Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform (NUP), says it has a list of more than 600 activists who have disappeared.

The wave of state-led abductions is linked to the election. Mr Museveni was declared the winner after security forces had blocked, tear-gassed and shot at his opponents. Deprived of a fair contest at the ballot box, opposition activists tried to mobilise on the streets. Mr Museveni calls them “terrorists” who want to mount an “insurrection”. The detention of NUP activists is part of a wider strategy to shut down protest. On March 15th Mr Wine, who has urged Ugandans to “rise up”, was arrested while marching peacefully in Kampala, the capital.

Detained activists are interrogated about their connections to Mr Wine and their knowledge of his plans, according to 12 who spoke to The Economist after their release. They say they were beaten with batons and cables, repeatedly doused with cold water, forced to do press-ups and squats, deprived of essential medicines, hooded for days or weeks at a time and, in two cases, subjected to electric shocks. “They started boxing me, and remember I’m masked, I’m not seeing,” says one man after his release. “You could just feel a blow in the chest, sticks beating you, the wire hammering you.”

An army spokesman says these are “unfounded allegations” made by “criminals”. Yet some activists carry scars, or are missing toenails or teeth. Mr Wine has released horrific pictures on social media, which he says are of a supporter who died from his wounds after being tortured.

Most of the detainees are charged with “possession of military stores”, alluding to the red berets often worn by Mr Wine’s supporters. That is no coincidence, notes Eron Kiiza, a lawyer who has handled several such cases. Although judges ruled in 2006 that military courts cannot try civilians, the army maintains that it can prosecute anyone found with military equipment. Six former detainees say that soldiers forced them to put on a red beret before taking photographs, apparently to fabricate evidence. Others have been dumped in swamps, sugar plantations and even at a mortuary, badly injured and without formal charge.

Meanwhile families trek between prisons, barracks and police stations in a futile search for their loved ones. Some have paid money to strangers who give false promises of help. The loss of a breadwinner leaves relatives struggling to pay rent and school fees. Florence Nabakooza has had no income since her husband, Shafik Wangolo, was abducted by plainclothes gunmen in December. On her lap she cradles a three-month-old baby that has never seen its father.

The state gives few answers. In one example, the joint chief of staff of the military wrote to the solicitor-general, insisting that four of the missing men were not in army custody. But Mr Museveni himself later said that two of those named had been taken by commandos—implying that army leaders were either lying, or did not know what the commando squad was up to. The army spokeswoman has given no explanation, a month after The Economist first asked.

Mr Museveni has also said that 51 detainees are being held by Special Forces Command, an army unit with a vague remit which is led by his son. Its soldiers have a record of brutality, from an invasion of parliament to the beating of Mr Wine. A spokesman insists the unit has no detention facilities and that anyone it has arrested has been handed over to police. Nobody in authority wants to be held accountable. As Mr Museveni enters his 36th year in office, even the pretence of constitutionalism is slipping away.

This article was published by The Economist.


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