Washington — A prominent human rights group is demanding the release or trials of five Ugandan detainees held by military intelligence for up to 16 months.
The five detainees, four men and one woman, were arrested throughout 2008 by agents of a governmental police force, made up of military, police and intelligence officers, which answers to the chief of military intelligence called the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force (JATT).
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the Ugandan government is in violation of the Ugandan Constitution by continuing to hold them without charge or access to a lawyer or family.
Petitions for habeas corpus were filed at the High Court in Kampala on Jul. 17 by lawyers on behalf of friends and families of the detainees. The filings seek to force the government to provide justification for the arrest and continued detention of the five individuals.
The government has also refused to release the location of the individuals, which HRW said "makes these cases of enforced disappearance under international law".
"If the government thinks that any of these people committed a crime, it should bring charges," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at HRW. "But holding them indefinitely and secretly this way violates both Uganda's own laws and its international obligations."
Three of the five individuals were confirmed to be in government custody by the chief of military intelligence, Brigadier James Mugira. Two of the five, Abdulrahman Kijjambu and Ismail Kambaale, were arrested in July 2008 for allegedly planning "terrorist attacks". The other, Abdul Hamid Lugemwa, was arrested in March 2008 for his alleged involvement with an "urban hit squad", according to HRW.
HRW was told that these cases are pending prosecution but no charges have been filed in any of them.
While the Ugandan government has said that it has no knowledge on the location of the fourth detainee, Mohamed Sekulima, witnesses told HRW that he was in the custody of JATT and they saw him several times in the city of Kololo throughout 2008.
Systematic torture by JATT at its headquarters in Kololo, a suburb of Kampala, was documented in an HRW report released in April.
The fifth individual, Fatuma Nantongo, was purportedly arrested by known members of JATT in December 2008, but, according to HRW, these reports are unconfirmed. HRW said that witnesses confirmed seeing her in custody in January 2009.
Currently there is no knowledge of the physical whereabouts of any of these five detainees, which HRW says is a direct violation of international law.
HRW exchanged letters with Mugira throughout November 2008 regarding the location of 16 people, including four of the five detainees whose families filed the petition Friday.
"In the months following the Nov. 3 letter, 11 detainees who had been identified by Human Rights Watch as being unlawfully detained were released without charge, granted amnesty, or charged with a criminal offense," the group said.
None of those charged, however, have gone to trial or had a date set for their trial.
One detainee, Saidi Lutaaya, died while in custody. Military intelligence denied the death despite HRW's possession of a copy of the death certificate. There is no cause of death listed on the certificate.
Reports HRW received from individuals who saw Lutaaya during his detention indicated that he was beaten severely and repeatedly by officials. One said that he was hit on the head with a hammer during an interrogation.
Lutaaya's family has never received official notice of his detention or his body.
While the Ugandan military denied to HRW that it abuses suspects and detainees as a method of gaining intelligence, the Ministry of Defence has refused to respond to questions from HRW regarding the issue.
However, other government officials, including the minister of defence and Mugira, have made promises to investigate the allegations by HRW and that "those found responsible for abuses would be held to account."
Deputy chief of mission at the Ugandan embassy in Washington, Charles Ssentongo, told IPS that, "Human Rights Watch has been in touch with our government in that matter and I think the minister of defence has promised to send a response."
According to HRW, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance calls an enforced disappearance an occurrence "when a person is deprived of his or her liberty, whether under arrest, detention, or otherwise, by state authorities, and the detention is followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of the detained person."
The group says that the disappearances occurring in Uganda violate basic human rights, "including the right to life, the right to liberty and security of the person, the right to a fair and public trial, as well as the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment."
"Human Rights Watch has documented many instances of [Ugandan armed forces] abuse against Ugandan civilians, particularly civilians in northern Uganda," said Beth Tuckey of Washington-based Africa Faith and Justice Network.
Tuckey called for the U.S. to withhold military aid "until the government recognises democracy and human rights, particularly in the field of military affairs".
HRW also cites Uganda's own constitution, which gives citizens the right to habeas corpus. If the current petitions from the lawyers of the detainees' friends and families are granted, the government must bring those held before a judge and explain why they have been detained.
"Ugandan military and civilian authorities need to stop disappearances immediately," Gagnon said. "Family members should not have to resort to legal action to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones."
HRW also released an audio recording of discussions with two former detainees who had been tortured by the task force and military intelligence on Friday.