Four alleged masterminds of the ‘walk to work’ street protests in the eastern Ugandan district of Mbale have been charged with terrorism. They could be could be sentenced to the death penalty.
By Joseph Elunya, Mbale
In the last few months Uganda has seen many demonstrations in which people walk to work in protest against the high food and fuel prices. The suspects had been kept in illegal confinement in Mbale Central Police Station in eastern Uganda since their arrest on the 7th of this month.
Suspects talk about their ordeal
“I was standing with my wife in front of the office of the Mbale Resident District Commissioner, when a man I later identified as Ali Magambo pulled over in a saloon car and forced me into it at gun point,” said a suspect speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from security officials.
“My wife struggled to pull me out of the car, but Ali Magambo overpowered her and drove off with me up to Mbale Central Police Station where I have spent the last week,” he reminiscences with tears rolling down from his eyes. “They have never told me the reason why they arrested me, but they keep holding me here against my rights.” The suspect says he was not tortured during the one week he spent at Mbale Central Police Station, but he was denied access to his relatives or lawyers.
Relatives cry out for justice
A wife of one of the suspects, who prefers to remain anonymous, says she tried in vain to have access to her husband. “I have moved to all offices in an attempt to meet or at least secure bail for him, but they keep sending me from one office to another and sometimes they tell me to go to the office of the Director of Public Prosecution, but when I came there they tossed me up and down,” says the mother of six. “I even don’t know how the children will go back to school when the new term opens in four days time, because he was the sole breadwinner.” She adds that she will leave everything to fate.
Terrorists have no rights
But the police say they have overwhelming evidence to pin the suspects. “I’ am not mad to sanction the arrest of only four out of all the rioters if I wouldn’t have evidence connecting them to terrorism,” says the Eastern Uganda Regional Police Commander Philip Achaye.
He defends the long detention without trial. “Terrorists do not deserve their rights, because in the first place they do not know whether there are rights.” Achaye explains that the suspects were captured on close circuit television cameras while commanding the burning of a government vehicle. “With the purpose of influencing the government of Uganda and for social gain they indiscriminately and without due regard for the safety of others or property set fire to a government vehicle,” he says.
In Uganda, the highest punishment when convicted for terrorism result is the death penalty. Human rights organisations have condemned the action of the police. Maria Burnet, Senior Researcher of the Africa department of NGO Human Rights Watch: “We are concerned about the use of terrorism against peaceful demonstrators by the Ugandan authority. Scores of people were arrested and charged with a similar offence that September 2009 street protesters were charged with. These people and are still detained to date, but when you look at the evidence it does not constitute to terrorism. It could be arson, at the very most” says Burnet.
The four alleged terrorist masterminds will stay in the Maluku government prison near Mbale town and will reappear in court on the 1st of June.