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Indecent exposure of Ugandan activist blows lid on police brutality

Ugandan police arrest 8 people, suspected of participating in the assassination of Prosecutor, Joan Kagezi, April 7 2015.
Ugandan police arrest 8 people, suspected of participating in the assassination of Prosecutor, Joan Kagezi, April 7 2015. Reuters/James Akena

Human rights groups in Uganda are calling for an end to police violence after several government opponents were recently arrested and tear gassed, with one activist even being stripped naked by officers. The UN says it's concerned by allegations of excessive police force. 


Incidents of police brutality are not new in Uganda. Rights groups have long reported on cases of killings particularly during times of public protest, but the latest episode has drawn much anger.

The spark that lit the fuse is a woman by the name of Zaina Fatuma. A National Executive Committee member and environment secretary for Uganda's main opposition party the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), Fatuma was propelled into the spotlight on October 10 when she was stripped naked by police for the whole world to see.

On her way to attend a political rally in Rukungiri district in western Uganda, she was dragged on the ground and stripped by police, in shocking scenes that have provoked outrage, and a strong-worded statement by the UN for Ugandan police to refrain from excessive force and degrading treatment.

Ugandan police have dismissed claims of police brutality, claiming instead that the Opposition is trying to discredit them.

"Their plan is to plant ladies, ladies that are willing to undress themselves when we arrest them," deputy police spokesperson Patrick Onyango told RFI.

"She willingly undresses or she will put on a loose dress in case a police woman touches her, the dress will fall off, and yes it will indicate that our behaviour is brutal," he stated.

Yet this argument doesn't explain why the topic of police brutality keeps coming back to the fore. Past the shock of nudity and seeing breasts frolicking in the air, the real discomfort lies in the the fact that police can mishandle citizens and seemingly get away with it.

"There is very little scrutiny of the police administrative disciplinary systems," Maria Burnett, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told RFI.

"For example, although there is a law now criminalizing torture in Uganda, we have never seen a single prosecution of a police officer under that act,” she criticized.

Bureaucratic and cumbersome, the court system in Uganda is part of the problem.

"It took the country's constitutional court twenty years to recognize that police officers should be held accountable of violating human rights," Isaac Ssemakadde, CEO of the Kampala-based human rights watchdog, Legal Brains Trust, said appallingly.

Accountability stifled by legal intricacies

Accountability is stymied also by legal mechanisms, such as the Public Order Management Act, which allow police to justify forcibly dispersing people at gatherings.

Patrick Onyango maintains that the rally at Rukungiri in which the female activist was stripped naked, was not authorized: “When they are forcefully going to force themselves to hold a rally, that is when we come in and stop them. .. Of course the law allows us, when somebody resists, to use reasonable force.”

This is not the opinion however of Human Rights Watch: "You can get into these intricacies about compliance with laws but fundamentally, Ugandans have the right to free expression, assembly," Maria Burnett insisted.

As electoral fever sweeps the country and opposition mounts against incumbent president Yoweri Musevini, fears are growing that the police may be used as a tool to stifle discontent.

"The police is a tool of coercion used by the ruling party to suppress perceived opponents and critics of the President," Ssemakadde from the NGO Legal Brains Trust, told RFI.

"The NRM (National Resistance Movement) party is infused with the State and it uses state organs like the police to clamp down on people's rights in this country," he added.

Calls for the international community to condition donor aid against police accountability are growing. But it's also Ugandans themselves who need to speak out and condemn acts of brutality, activists say.

Today, they're calling on the Ugandan government to set up a specialized oversight authority, similar to the one recently introduced in Kenya, to investigate cases of misconduct and keep the police in line.

And although views diverge over who stripped activist Fatuma naked, what is clear is that this latest episode has reignited an uncomfortable spotlight on Uganda's security forces, whose tactics will come under increasing scrutiny as elections draw nearer.

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