Uganda: No Justice for 2016 Kasese Massacre by Security Forces

(Nairobi) – Ugandan authorities have failed to investigate the police and military responsible for killing more than 100 people in western Uganda in 2016, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing a video featuring interviews with victims’ families. Those killed on November 26 and 27, 2016 in Kasese, home of the Rwenzururu kingdom, included at least 15 children

“Ugandan officials won’t even ask why overwhelming lethal force was used that day and why children died, which shows a terrifying disdain for human life,” said Maria Burnett, East Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Security forces shoot, kill, arrest, detain and torture civilians, charge them with serious crimes, such as treason, and yet the government only investigates the civilians, while giving the security forces a free pass to abuse again.”

The killings followed long-standing tensions, unresolved grievances, and sporadic violence between the government and the Rwenzururu kingdom, comprised of ethnic Bakonzo people, in Kasese and Bundibugyo districts in Uganda’s Rwenzori region.

Human Rights Watch had pressed the government for years, well before the November 2016 massacre, for an independent investigation into the killings of police and government soldiers and into abusive law enforcement operations in which scores of civilians had been killed. But instead of providing justice or responding meaningfully to local grievances, government forces carried out killings in Kasese town and in the kingdom’s palace, arguing those killed were all terrorists, despite evidence to the contrary.

In the aftermath of the November 2016 operation, the government charged hundreds of civilians, including six children, with treason, terrorism, and murder for the deaths of 15 police in six sub-counties outside the town of Kasese, among other crimes. At least 167 of the civilians remain in pre-trial detention. Many spent part of the time in Nalufenya police post in Jinja, Eastern Uganda, where numerous former detainees have said they were tortured.

At initial hearings against the accused in 2016, journalists observed significant untreated wounds on several of the defendants. The magistrate ordered an investigation into their treatment, but it remains pending. Until April this year, Nalufenya was a police special force operations base but police leadership has since redesignated Nalufenya as a standard police post, in part due to the many allegations of abuse. So far, no police have faced criminal charges for mistreatment of the detainees in Nalufenya.

In July 2018, Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 people in Kasese, including family members of those missing or killed in the November 2016 violence, as well as local government officials and found that many people still feared reprisals because of the ongoing security force presence in the district. In January 2017, Human Rights Watch had interviewed more than 95 people in six sub-counties of Kasese district and reviewed video and photographs of the events.

During the November 2016 operation, the military and police attacked the kingdom’s administration offices and the palace compound. But families of those killed in both locations remain without answers about why the killings occurred and who is responsible. Bismark Baluku, a 17-year-old student, was working as a cleaner at the administration offices of the kingdom’s prime minister when he was gunned down by soldiers on November 26.

“We fear to ask the government, ‘Why did you shoot our child who was an innocent person, who does not carry a panga [machete], who knows nothing of a gun?” Baluku’s uncle told Human Rights Watch. “We hear rumors that if you ask, you could be jailed.”

Sixteen-year-old Musokyi Biira Scovia, a cook and household worker for the king’s wife, lived in the palace. During the assault on November 27, she was shot and seriously injured and her father, James Baseka, who also worked in the palace, was killed. Soldiers loaded her onto a truck to send her to detention in Nalufenya, along with hundreds of others. She died on the way. Her body was taken to Kasese mortuary a few days later. “Our mouths are zipped,” said her mother. “Why doesn’t the government want us to speak out about our issues?”

Some families never received their loved one’s body for burial, despite requests. Government officials buried at least 52 people in graves inside the military barracks in Kasese, reporting that the bodies had not been claimed. Police medical director and pathologist, Dr. Moses Byaruhanga, recently confirmed to Human Rights Watch that DNA samples were taken and submitted to the Government Analytical Laboratory for “profiling.” He said families could approach police in Kasese if they wanted to provide DNA samples for possible matching and that testing would be free. Thus far, he said, no families had requested matching. No families interviewed by Human Rights Watch were aware of this offer.

The prolonged detention of 167 civilians, charged with treason, terrorism, and murder among other offenses, contrasts starkly with the complete absence of investigations into the security forces’ conduct and killings of civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

Some Kasese community members said that it remains dangerous for anyone previously associated with the kingdom’s royal guards – volunteers loyal to the kingdom who safeguard cultural sites, among other tasks, for the king – to come to the attention of security forces. In some cases, such allegations are reportedly being made to sow discord or settle personal scores. One local official said: “Since 26 November, people lived in fear and in anger against the government. If someone wants you to die, they can only say you are a royal guard and you are finished.”

The killings and large number of detentions have had a harsh economic impact on the community. One local chairman said that 33 of the people killed in November 2016 were from his subcounty, leaving over 200 children without a breadwinner in the family. “Most of those children are not going to school,” he told Human Rights Watch.

In February, without commenting on the killings, President Yoweri Museveni donated 10 motorcycles and 200 million Uganda shillings (US$ 52,000) to several different community groups in Kasese district, including one for royal guards’ widows and orphans.

The lack of investigations, coupled with families’ fears of reprisals if they speak out, means that there is no accurate, final death toll from November 2016. Human Rights Watch 2017 research concluded that at least 55 people died on November 26, including 14 police officers and one crime preventer in six different sub-counties and 8 people at the cultural institution’s offices on Alexander Street, and that on November 27 security forces killed more than 100 people during the assault on the palace compound.

After Human Rights Watch published its research, the government increased the official death toll from 87 to 103, explicitly including 16 police officers, but didn’t specify over what period. In April 2017, community activists compiled lists of dead and missing people, identifying 115 adults and 15 children killed on November 27 at the palace. Those killed on November 26 were not included.

“The government’s failure to hold the security forces accountable for the massacre only fuels the perception that it does not protect all Ugandans equally,” Burnett said. “To prevent recurring cycles of violence, it is crucial for the government to show willingness to protect everyone, no matter their ethnicity, and to bring security forces – not only civilians – who commit crimes to justice.”

Tensions Before the Massacre

Human Rights Watch has carried out research in the Rwenzori subregion for many years and had raised concerns about unaddressed intercommunal violence and abusive law enforcement operations in the two years leading up to the November 2016 events. Human Rights Watch research and credible media reports indicated on July 2014 that some members of the Bakonzo ethnic group – possibly hundreds – organized in small units, attacked police and army posts in several districts with guns, machetes, and bows and arrows. The attacks were most intense around the village of Bigando in Kasese district and Kanyamwirima military barracks in Bundibugyo district.

The attacks prompted reprisals by members of other ethnic groups, and possibly some by security forces, as well as brutal counter-security operations against Bakonzo people over the following days. On July 10, then-Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga told parliament that at least 92 people had been killed in July. Ultimately, military prosecutors charged over 170 Bakonzo suspects with a range of offenses before the military courts, and 500 others were granted amnesty.

In July 2016, Human Rights Watch wrote to the then-inspector general of the police, General Kale Kayihura, urging investigations into the killings of at least 50 people in the Rwenzori subregion, including 17 allegedly by security forces, during political infighting and elections between February and April and to make the findings public. Kayihura did not reply, and there were no investigations.

These longstanding tensions between the local cultural kingdom and the central government exploded on the morning of November 26, 2016 in Kasese. Government authorities have said that the kingdom was given an ultimatum to disband its militias or face attack. The kingdom said that its royal guards are not a militia, but instead traditionally volunteer to safeguard cultural sites and protect the kingdom out of loyalty.

Soldiers under the command of then-Brigadier Peter Elwelu forced their way into the kingdom’s administration offices on Alexander street in Kasese on November 26 and shot dead eight members of the royal guards and Baluku, the 17-year old student and office cleaner.

Witnesses said that the shootings prompted widespread concern among kingdom loyalists, and word spread quickly to sub-counties that the kingdom was under attack. That afternoon, some residents armed with machetes, including some royal guards, attacked six small police posts far outside the town. In the ensuing violence, at least 14 police constables and one crime preventer – a member of a volunteer force of civilians that works with the police – were hacked to death and security forces shot 32 civilians. Most of the alleged attackers were killed in the clashes.

By evening, soldiers and police under the command of General Elwelu and the then-police operations director, Asuman Mugenyi, had surrounded the kingdom’s palace compound in Kasese town. The palace often had hundreds of people inside, royal guards as well as their families and young people learning vocational skills or working for the kingdom. Over a dozen people interviewed said that they received calls from family members inside the compound saying that the military would not let them leave.

The palace remained surrounded on Sunday, November 27. One woman whose husband was later killed in the palace attack, described her last phone call with him: “He suggested that we pray together. He lost hope that we would meet again. From there I heard the gunshots shortly after.”

Many people interviewed said they heard loud explosions around 1p.m. and eventually saw thatched roofs on the perimeter and inside the compound catch fire. In video footage Human Rights Watch reviewed, two soldiers are seen beating shirtless male detainees who had run out of the burning compound and were lying on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs.

Children in the Palace

The government spokesman said that the allegation that children were killed in the attacks was “a falsehood,” but without any investigations, the basis for his assertions is unclear. What is clear is that children were in the palace because the police arrested six of them and charged them with treason and terrorism, among other crimes. According to interviews, these children were detained in Nalufenya, before they were eventually transferred to Naguru remand home for children, and later freed on bail.

Many people in Kasese cited the killing of Baluku, who had taken a job cleaning at the cultural institution’s office on the weekends to pay for his education, in the Alexander Street office on November 26. His family got his body several days later, but neither the police nor the military have investigated Baluku’s death.

“I want to be assisted to find justice for my child,” his mother said. “I have failed to answer questions from his brothers and sisters about what happened to him.” Human Rights Watch visited both his school and his gravesite and spoke to several people who said he was a bright student who wanted to be a doctor.

Raymond Mumbere, 10, had brought food to his father, who worked in the palace, and was killed in the palace attack. His mother said: “The government keeps saying there were no children in the palace, but my child was there. I am asking the government, by the time they killed the children, what had the children done? I am asking the government to compensate me for my child.”

Community members have gathered the names of 15 children between ages 1 and 15 who they believe were killed in the palace and Human Rights Watch has interviewed 15 families who say they lost a child on November 26 or 27.

Allegations of Royal Guard Membership and Reprisals

Security officials continue to carry out law enforcement operations against alleged royal guards, but community members expressed concerns at both the use of disproportionate force in arrests and the use of accusations of royal guard membership to settle personal or political scores.

“Royal guard means enemy of the government here now,” said one man. “But that is not true.” Community members said they fear arrest or violence from security forces if they express any allegiance to the kingdom.

One local government official said: “I told [police] last time they came here that if you want to arrest royal guards, you will arrest all of us because we all like our cultural institution. Up to now, whenever I want to bring a flag and put it in our office, police intimidate us. They tell me not to raise the flag [of the kingdom].”

A man in his fifties said that soldiers severely beat him and his wife in early 2017 because they falsely suspected him of sheltering royal guards in his home: “The UPDF [soldiers] came to my house at midnight. They said I was a royal guard and keeping guns and an injured royal guard,” he said. “I denied all the allegations. They got me out of the house and searched. Others started to pour water on me and hit me. They got my wife out and started slapping her.”

Later at a police post nearby, he said, they stripped him naked, made him roll in tall wet grass and then beat him, telling him they would take him to Nalufenya, if he didn’t admit to sheltering royal guards. The police eventually released him on condition that he would report to them daily.

In another case, an elderly woman said that soldiers have repeatedly come to her home looking for her husband and her son, who never returned home from the palace on November 26 and she assumes were killed there. When the soldiers came the first time, in December 2016, she said, they beat her: “They got a club and started hitting me on the back and buttocks.” She spent three days receiving treatment at a local health center and said she still has pain in her ribs and neck.

Witnesses said that Matayo Bighanzire was shot and killed outside his home on August 18, 2017, after soldiers beat him and his children. The military told the media at the time that Bighanzire was a royal guard who had attacked two soldiers with a knife, but witnesses contradicted that claim. The lack of investigations into these cases fuel speculation that the government does not take abuses of civilians in the region seriously, Human Rights Watch said.

Government Response to Human Rights Watch

Elwelu, commander of second military division which operates in the Rwenzori subregion at the time of the killings, was promoted to chief of land forces, one of the highest-ranking positions in the army, in January 2017. He has not publicly commented on the killings in Kasese since Human Rights Watch published its report in March 2017. However, the government spokesman via the Uganda Media Centre responded, stated that the research had “flaws that do not represent the true facts of the subject matter.” The five-page statement lists several previous incidents of conflict in the Kasese region, well before November 2016, some of which Human Rights Watch had raised in previous reporting and in letters to then-Inspector General of Police General Kale Kayihura.

The Media Centre’s statement contends that those killed were armed fighters. It claims that because cases relating to events on November 26 and 27 are pending before courts, any other investigations would be “untenable” because they could be seen as an effort to usurp the court’s jurisdiction. That argument relies on a false and perverted application of the sub judice rule or pending litigation rule.

While the government is detaining and prosecuting people it claims have committed offenses, there are no pending court cases involving soldiers or police. Any such claims regarding the subjudice rule are irrelevant when it comes to investigating police abuse and is nothing more than a weak effort to further block justice for the victims, Human Rights Watch said.

Calls for Justice Unheeded

At the time of the killings, local and international bodies made multiple calls for investigations into the security forces’ conduct. The groups included the Buganda kingdom, another Ugandan cultural institution that had its own political tensions with the central government that led to police and military killing at least 48 civilians in September 2009. In a 2016 Christmas message, the kingdom urged the government to “do everything in its power to investigate and punish all those involved in the mass killings.”

Nongovernmental groups such as Uganda Law Society, Human Rights Network (HURINET), Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), and individual members and organizations of Uganda’s women’s movement, and many others urged accountability for the Kasese killings.

On March 16, 2017 the European Union (EU) and member states with embassies in Uganda issued a statement calling on the “competent authorities to immediately conduct the necessary field investigations, ensuring strong witness protection and protection of evidence.” The EU also offered to support those efforts. The United States, a significant contributor to Uganda’s military issued a statement on March 15, 2017, stating that it was “deeply troubled by the reported disproportionate use of force by security officials on November 27.” The US further urged the government to “conduct or permit a fair and independent investigation into this incident.”

In May 2017, a coalition of 40 Ugandan and international organizations urged the Ugandan government to facilitate an independent and transparent investigation involving international expertise into the Kasese killings and urged the government to invite relevant African Commission experts and United Nations special rapporteurs to participate. The government did not respond.