The Ugandan government should urgently charge or release five detainees held by military intelligence, one of them for 16 months, Human Rights Watch has demanded. Lawyers for the detainees' families and friends filed petitions for habeas corpus with the High Court in Kampala on Friday seeking to compel the government to justify the legal basis for continuing detention.
The five detainees - four men and one woman - were arrested on various dates in 2008 by agents of the Joint Anti-terrorism Task Force (JATT), a unit that draws its members from the military, police, and intelligence organizations.
The suspects have been held without access to a lawyer or family and have never been before a magistrate or charged with any crime throughout their prolonged detention. Human Rights Watch noted that the government's refusal to reveal the physical whereabouts of the detainees makes these cases of enforced disappearance under international law,
Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch says If the government thinks that any of these people committed a crime, it should bring charges adding that holding them indefinitely and secretly violates both Uganda's own laws and its international obligations.
A number of former detainees who spoke with Human Rights Watch and who saw some or all of the five in detention said that all five have been held most of the time at the task force headquarters in Kololo.
They also said that some were tortured during interrogation and as a result may be in ill health.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch released an audio recording of two former detainees who had been tortured by the task force and military intelligence.
These new accounts amplify a Human Rights Watch report released in April, "Open Secret: Illegal Detention and Torture by the Joint Anti-terrorism Task Force in Uganda," which detailed multiple abuses by the task force, including killings, enforced disappearances, forced confessions and torture of alleged terrorism and treason suspects.
As part of the research for that report, Human Rights Watch exchanged letters with the chief of military intelligence in November 2008 regarding the whereabouts of 16 people, including four of the five whose families now seek habeas corpus relief.
In a written response to Human Rights Watch dated November 3, 2008, the chief of military intelligence confirmed that Abdulrahman Kijjambu and Ismail Kambaale, two of the five, were arrested in July 2008, allegedly for planning "terrorist acts," and that Abdul Hamid Lugemwa, a third, was arrested in March 2008 for alleged involvement in an "urban hit squad."
Military intelligence said all three were being held pending prosecution, but to date no charges have been filed in any of these cases.
Military intelligence asserted no knowledge of the whereabouts of the fourth detainee, Mohamed Sekulima.
However, four people told Human Rights Watch separately that they saw Sekulima in the task force's custody in Kololo several times in 2008. It is unclear if the fifth person, Fatuma Nantongo, was in custody at that time, although there are unconfirmed reports that she was arrested by men in civilian clothes known to work for the task force in December 2008.
People interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they saw her in custody in January 2009. Military Intelligence provided no information on the physical whereabouts of any of the five detainees, violating international legal prohibitions on enforced disappearances.
In the months following the November 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. To date, none of those charged has had a trial.
One detainee identified by Human Rights Watch died while in custody of the task force. Although military intelligence asserted in its letter that it had no knowledge of the whereabouts of Saidi Lutaaya, Human Rights Watch is in possession of a copy of Lutaaya's death certificate, which states that he died in a "comatose state." The certificate presents no cause of death.
A number of people who saw him either in the task-force detention site or in the casualty ward of Mulago Hospital in Kampala told Human Rights Watch that he had been severely beaten by task force and military intelligence agents, who allegedly hit him on the head with a hammer during an interrogation. His family has never received his body nor had any official acknowledgement of his arrest or detention.