Rights body re-awakens RRU boys crimes

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Human rights watch director Maria Burnet, Simon Mulongo, Paul Mwiru and Roselyn Kagonjo on Radio One Friday

On August 20, 2010, robbers broke into the house of an affluent woman in Makindye, Kampla, held machetes to her guard’s neck, and allegedly stole property and money.

Police questioned several people, including Frank Ssekanjako, a 22-year-old who was renting a room near the crime scene. He was arrested, along with three others.

Eyewitnesses who saw Ssekanjako in detention in Kabalagala police station two days after his arrest said that he was concerned about the allegations against him but seemed in good health and spirits.

On August 23, three officers from Uganda Police’s Rapid Response Unit collected Ssekanjako and another suspect allegedly in order to recover stolen property. What happened next is a matter of dispute.

The RRU officers told Human Rights Watch that Ssekanjako complained of stomach pain in the car, so they took him to the hospital where he died a few minutes later.

But the official post-mortem report suggests otherwise, as do multiple eyewitnesses who described how the officers beat Ssekanjako and other suspects  for over an hour at the scene of the alleged robbery with plastic pipes and a large entolima, or wooden club, until he stopped moving or making any noise.

Reportedly, officers then dragged the men to the car, dropped off two suspects at Kabalagala police station to give statements and took Ssekanjako to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

According to the post-mortem report Ssekanjako’s injuries were “fresh” and included eight puncture abrasions on the right foot, bruising on the back, a swollen right shoulder, bruising on the right and left upper arms and left flank, and abrasions on the left thigh and elbow. No cause of death was determined. Three officers have been arrested and are awaiting trial.

Ssekanjako’s family has yet to receive information, documents, or medical evidence related to his death—including copies of photos that police took of his body—and say interacting with police about the investigation has been very difficult.

“Either the police were negligent or they were purposefully trying to kill [Ssekanjako], but my mother has a right to know what happened,” Ssekanjako’s brother told Human Rights Watch. “You go to police and expect vigilance and instead get violence”

Human Rights Watch has documented hundreds of cases of torture by various security units in Uganda over many years. This report details extrajudicial killings, torture, illegal detention, forced confessions and other abuses by the Rapid Response Unit (RRU) of the Uganda Police Force.

RRU is the legacy of Operation Wembley, a short-lived security unit that quickly earned a reputation for torture, including water-feeding, genital mutilation, and stabbing, whipping or beating detainees.

While the name and command structure of the unit has changed, abusive practices continue and are rarely exposed, acknowledged, challenged, or punished.

During more than 13 months of research, Human Rights Watch carried out over 100 interviews in regions where RRU is most active—Kampala, Mbale, Jinja, Masaka, and Mbarara.

Drawing on interviews with victims of abuses, as well as current and former RRU employees, researchers documented serious human rights violations by RRU since its formal establishment in 2007.

RRU personnel were allegedly responsible for at least six extrajudicial killings in 2010 alone, frequent use of torture during interrogations to extract confessions, and prolonged illegal and sometimes incommunicado detention of suspects at RRU headquarters in Kireka, Kampala, and other locations.

RRU’s predecessor, Operation Wembley, was formed in June 2002 on the executive order of President Yoweri Museveni to combat armed urban crime.

Commanded by a then-military colonel and comprised of soldiers and other ad-hoc operatives untrained in law enforcement, Operation Wembley became synonymous with brutal forms of torture against alleged armed robbers.

In late 2002, Operation Wembley’s name was changed to the Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU) and was led by a police commander, but the military involvement in the law enforcement operations continued.

Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and the Uganda Human Rights Commission documented extensive abuses by the VCCU.

In July 2007, the unit again changed its name to Rapid Response Unit and officially moved under the command control of the police.

RRU also continues Operation Wembley’s practice of handing over civilian suspects to the military courts for prosecution, even though Uganda’s Supreme Court and its international obligations prohibit the trial of civilians before military courts.

Although under police command, RRU has sometimes used soldiers and untrained informants to carry out law enforcement operations.

RRU personnel typically operate in unmarked cars, wear civilian clothes with no identifying insignia, and carry a range of guns—from pistols to larger assault rifles. The unit’s members have on occasion transported suspects in the trunks of unmarked cars.

Read full human rights watch report here