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US Secretary of State responds to calls for sanctions on Ugandan army, police chiefs

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has responded to a letter calling for sanctions on Ugandan officials accused of abusing human rights.

"The United States is a longstanding partner of Uganda. We expect our partners to live up to their obligations to hold free and fair elections. We are paying close attention to the actions of individuals who seek to impede the ongoing democratic process", Pompeo tweeted.

The letter, written by the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elliot Engel, called for immediate sanctions on senior Ugandan officials, to address what he described as a worsening human rights situation in Uganda.

In the December 9 letter, Mr Engel singled out the commander of the Uganda Land Forces, Lt Gen Peter Elwelu, and Commander of the Special Forces Command (SFC) Maj Gen James Birungi, former SFC commander and incoming commander of Ugandan troops in Somali Maj Gen Don William Nabasa and Maj Gen Abel Kandiho, the Chief of Military Intelligence.

Others listed for sanctions include the deputy Inspector General of Police, Maj Gen Steven Sabiiti Muzeeyi, Commissioner of Police Frank Mwesigwa and the police director of Crime Intelligence, Col Chris Serunjogi Ddamulira.

“For several years, the US has raised concerns about the Ugandan government’s lack of respect for the civil liberties of its citizens and urged the government to conduct or permit credible investigations into alleged human rights abuses. However, diplomatic rhetoric alone has had little impact on President Museveni’s behaviour. Instead, he has further consolidated power while preventing the emergence of a viable democratic Opposition,” Mr Engel wrote to the US State Department.

In a letter to the Secretary of State and Secretary to the Department of Treasury, Engel, urged the US to robustly support human rights defenders and prevent further abuses he claimed are perpetrated by Ugandan security forces against citizens.

In a separate tweet, Pompeo said the U.S. and UK had imposed sanctions on 37 corrupt actors and human rights abusers.

“On International Human Rights Day, and International Anticorruption Day, the U.S. and UK imposed sanctions on 37 corrupt actors and human rights abusers. Together, we will ensure corrupt actors and human rights abusers will have no refuge within our jurisdictions,” he said.

Government says

Kampala, however, scoffed at the recommendation for the sanctions, saying the decision is based on “fictitious allegations.”

The executive director of Uganda Media Centre, a government communication clearing house, Mr Ofwono Opondo said government has not received any communication from the US government with which they have diplomatic relations.

“These are just fictitious allegations. Does he know the chain of commander for the army and police? But what we know is that some Ugandans, especially the Opposition have been trying to invoke foreign support thinking it will help them. We wish them good luck,” Mr Opondo said.

He questioned Mr Engel’s conclusion that the said Ugandan officers are human rights offenders, adding that he does not know how Uganda’s security agencies operate.

Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa and State minister of International Relations Okello Oryem were not readily available for comment on the matter by press time.

Ugandan diplomats in Washington DC, however, told Daily Monitor that Mr Engel’s letter was not addressed to the Ugandan government and they have nothing to do or say about it.

“The most we can do is ensure that the members of the committee also hear the government’s response through other means, but any response has to be guided by Kampala,” a senior diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Mr Engel wants the State Department, which handle’s US external relations, and the Department of Treasury, the federal national treasury, to slap sanctions on the Ugandan security officials under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, signed into force by former President Barack Obama in 2012.

Some of the sanctions under the Act include freezing of assets or banning any designated official from traveling to US or any territory controlled by the US.

Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo of Chapter Four-Uganda yesterday evening said Mr Engel’s letter means the aforementioned Ugandan security officers are being closely watched by the US.

“Sooner or later action will be taken,” Mr Opiyo opined. “The US law— Magnitsky Act—has been replicated by the European Union to enforce economic sanctions on individuals across the board. Once someone has been designated it means they become economic pariahs, and cannot transact in the normal financial transaction system.”

Other people that were sanctioned

The US imposed sanctions on the former Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, under the same Act for alleged human rights abuses. Globally, some 90 people are on this list of the sanctions and among them is Absulaziz al-Hasawi, the bodyguard of the Saudi crown prince, who killed Saudi journalist Jamal Kashogi.

In April 2017, the Observer newspaper reported how Lt Gen Elwelu was blocked from attending the US-funded African Land Forces Summit in the Malawian capital Lilongwe for his role in the military raid on the Rwenzururu King’s palace in Kasese. However, when asked in an interview with Qatari-based television network Al-Jazeera, President Museveni denied knowledge about the matter and said Gen Elwelu was not ‘dying’ to travel.

However, Mr Opondo yesterday said there is no need for America’s interference in Uganda’s internal affairs.

“There is no matter which cannot be resolved in Uganda. We have had serious problems in Uganda before and we have never asked Americans to come to our aid,” he said.

Mr Engel does not specify the human rights abuses committed by the Ugandan security officers mentioned in his letter but mentions the recent protests in Kampala and other towns which left 54 people dead, mainly shot by security forces, following the riots triggered by the arrest of presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, on November 18, the November 2016 attack which Lt Gen Elwelu commanded on King Wesley Mumbere’s palace outside Kasese Town. Some 155 people were killed during the attack.

Mr Engel also cites the September 2017 invasion of Parliament by Special Forces Command (the presidential guard unit) to forcibly remove dissenting MPs during the debate on the Constitution amendment to remove the presidential age limit clause, which barred President Museveni from seeking re-election in 2021 after turning 75.

Mr Engel also mentioned the August 2018 violence in the Arua Municipality by-election during which 33 people including Bobi Wine and several MPs were brutally arrested. Security forces later claimed the Opposition politicians had thrown stones at the President’s convoy.

Mr Kyagulanyi’s driver, Yasin Kawuma was also shot dead in Arua Town during the violence. Nobody has ever been arrested or prosecuted for his death.

“These violent incidents reflect a highly disturbing trajectory for the country, thus ensuring that the environment for general elections in January 2021 has been fundamentally tilted in favour of an incumbent who has been in power since 1986,” Mr Engel wrote to the State Department.

Uganda’s Defence and Army spokesperson Flavia Byekwaso declined to comment on the issue.

Minister of State for Internal Affairs Obiga Kania under whose docket the police fall, also refused to comment. He said the matter falls under the ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Such issues are not addressed through the media. But Uganda’s issues with other countries should be addressed to Foreign Affairs ministry,” he said.

Bobi Wine said yesterday: “We have spent a lot of time asking our development partners and those that fund the security of Uganda to stand tall on the ongoing human rights abuses in the country. We have been telling them that they are working as partners in the crime because Uganda is the highest, after Egypt, in human rights abuse in Africa. So we have always asked them to hold these leaders accountable for their actions”.

This article was published by the Daily Monitor.


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