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Police unit in Uganda is accused of abuses

Report alleges torture, killings

By Josh Kron
New York Times / March 24, 2011

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KAMPALA, Uganda — The Ugandan government has engaged in torture, illegal detention, and extrajudicial killings of its citizens, according to a report released yesterday.

The report, by Human Rights Watch, focuses on the activities of an agency known as the Rapid Response Unit, a branch of Uganda’s police service created to tackle violent crime. The unit has also become a US ally in combating terrorism. Most recently, it helped investigate the terrorist attacks in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, during the World Cup last year, when more than 70 people died.

The report, compiled over 13 months, says members of the response unit, called the RRU, have repeatedly broken the law.

“Since the unit was established, RRU officers and affiliated personnel have carried out arrests for a wide range of crimes, from petty theft to terrorism,’’ it said. The unit, the report contends, is “known for practices that flout basic legal safeguards in Ugandan and international law.’’

The Ugandan government declined to comment on the report.

Of 77 people interviewed, Human Rights Watch said, 60 said they had been tortured by members of the unit. Common abuses included beatings on wrists, ankles, knees, and elbows while suspects were handcuffed in stress positions.

“RRU personnel beat detainees with batons, sticks, bats, metal pipes, padlocks, table legs, and other objects,’’ the report said. “Suspects often said they were forced to sign confessions under duress following torture.’’

According to the report, members of the response unit committed six extrajudicial killings in 2010; some people were beaten to death, and some shot, including one person who was handcuffed when he was shot.

Human Rights Watch described the response unit as the “preferred unit’’ for those seeking confessions “by any means.’’

“In cases we looked at by RRU, suspects were beaten until they confessed, paraded before journalists and dubbed hard-core criminals, and then put on trial before military officers,’’ said Maria Burnett, a researcher for the group in Uganda. “There is no presumption of innocence and little chance of a fair trial.’’

The report’s findings could be a cause for concern for the United States, a strong ally of Uganda and a partner in trying to counter terrorist threats in East Africa.

The FBI sent 60 agents to Uganda to help investigate the bombing during the World Cup.

“There were scores of arrests after the bombing, by various groups, units, and factions within the security services in Uganda, both police and military,’’ Burnett said. “Some clearly faced mistreatment and illegal detention — in some cases three months without charge.’’

In once instance, Human Rights Watch said, response unit officers working with FBI agents threatened a man who had refused to be an FBI informant.

“The United States continues to encourage Ugandan security services to respect human rights and the rule of law in pursuit of justice,’’ the US Embassy in Kampala said. “We routinely work with the military and law enforcement to enhance the professionalization of these services and will continue to do so.’’

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