Uganda: End Delay in Death-in-Custody Case

Complete Investigation; Send Officers to Trial
April 3, 2014
(Nairobi) – The Uganda Police Force (UPF) and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions should complete investigations into the August 2010 killing of a suspect in police custody and ensure that a trial begins expeditiously, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to officials at both offices. Three implicated police officers were arrested in 2010, charged with murder, and spent six months in prison, but they were released on bail in early 2011.

“The evidence of police brutality is overwhelming in this case, but police and prosecutors have failed for over three years now to ensure that justice is done,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher. “The police unit involved was disbanded because of concerns over human rights violations but the trial of the suspects in the case has stalled.”

The letter to Kale Kayihura, inspector general of the UPF, and to Public Prosecutions Director Mike Chibita, expressed concern over the lack of progress in bringing the case to trial. Human Rights Watch raised the killing of the suspect, Frank Ssekanjako, with both offices in private letters in 2010, 2011, and 2012, but there has been no change in the status of the case. It is pending before Makindye Magistrate Court but has not been sent to the High Court for trial, as required by Ugandan criminal procedure.

Human Rights Watch investigated the incident in detail, sent witnesses and victims to the State Attorney’s Office, the police, and the Uganda Human Rights Commission, and has tracked the case through the courts for the last three-and-a-half years.

In August 2010, Ssekanjako, a 22-year-old robbery suspect from Wakiso district, was arrested and brutally beaten during police investigations led by officers from the Rapid Response Unit (RRU). Police later took him to Kampala’s Mulago hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

At the time, the RRU was a police unit mandated to investigate “violent crime”: usually offenses linked to the use of firearms. Police officers from the unit, who were investigating the robbery, had taken Ssekanjako and two other suspects to the scene of the alleged crime during investigations. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the police officers subjected the men to severe and prolonged beatings during an interrogation until Ssekanjako stopped moving. The official post mortem report indicated that there was an array of recent, fresh injuries all over Ssekanjako’s body.

A number of people in the community witnessed the events the day of the killing, heard the suspects screaming, and have valuable evidence that places the RRU officers at the scene. That evidence should be gathered so the case can proceed to trial. Court officials and police have not been able to explain the lack of progress when queried.

Ssekanjako’s death was one of six extrajudicial killings by the RRU that Human Rights Watch documented in 2010. A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch examined how the RRU operated outside the law, carrying out torture, extortion, and in some cases, extrajudicial killings. In December 2011, General Kayihura disbanded the RRU, saying that the decision was in part due to human rights violations by its officers.

Accounting for Ssekanjako’s killing is an important opportunity for the Ugandan authorities to show they are serious about tackling security force abuses. But the delays and dubious quality of the investigation raises questions about the Ugandan authorities’ commitment to ending impunity.

Ssekanjako’s family has faced numerous challenges and intimidation stemming from their efforts to press the police to investigate and take action. The family actively pursued investigations and followed up, speaking to journalists and officials despite the obstacles. Police have ignored the family’s requests to provide vital information, documents, or medical evidence related to Ssekanjako’s death.

“This case could be a major milestone if RRU officers are held accountable for murdering a suspect and could deter abuse by others in the Ugandan police force,” Burnett said. “But if Ssekanjako’s death is swept under the rug, it will discourage victims from coming forward and implicitly condone police abuses.”