Amidst a worrying trend for human rights globally, civil liberties took major hits in 2018. Perpetrators continued to ride on impunity to brazenly violate rights in obvious disregard of the rule of law.

Civil liberties are a crucial pillar for peaceful, just, open and prosperous societies. During the two-day Kampala Geopolitics Conference convened by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) Uganda office and other partners, the conversation on how the global trends are undermining the pillars of democracy was an insightful reflection on the importance of the values of civil liberties in a democracy.

When people are able to freely express themselves – especially when dissenting – and explore opportunities, societies attain inclusive growth and the roots of stability are entrenched. When human rights are attacked, any successes that the society attains are bound to always remain fragile.

In Uganda, the human rights landscape was shaped by several violations and abuses notably, concerted attacks on opposition political leaders and clampdown on peaceful assemblies, crackdown on media freedoms and free speech – especially online (arrests and implementation of the UGX. 200 daily social media tax), shrinking civic space, torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, long pre-trial detention, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detention, and lack of effective redress for violations.

The fact that we need to do more to defend civil liberties and stand up for human rights defenders – who stand up for our rights daily – is apparent. But to have a chance of effectively doing so, it is crucial that we reflect on the trends.

On the night of August 13, 2018, security operates descended on Hotel Pacific located in the West Nile town of Arua and unleashed terror over alleged stoning of a vehicle in President Museveni’s motorcade. Night Asara, Caroline Nalubowa, Akira Maida, Jane Abola, Hon Zaake Francis, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a Bobi Wine and other 26 people were beaten and violently arrested. Others reported being tortured. They were later charged with treason in a court in the Northern town of Gulu.

In relation to the same, charges of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition were placed on Bobi Wine on allegations that 2 Kalashnikovs and 30 rounds of ammunition were recovered from his hotel room. As expected, it was not long before the trumped-up charges crumbled like a pack of cards. The principle of double jeopardy was invoked to save face. The treason charge in the High Court has nothing to do with the guns.

These actions violate basic principles of fair trials, due process, and freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

The common feature while these violations occurred was a deliberate effort to ensure it all happens in the dark. As a result, several journalists on the frontline were targeted, assaulted, tortured, arbitrarily arrested and detained. For instance, NTV Uganda’s Herbert Zziwa and Ronald Muwanga were assaulted and then arrested during a live broadcast in Arua.

Reuters photojournalist James Akena was isolated by soldiers and viciously clobbered despite raising up his camera. In August and September, the onslaught on journalists covering protests and other events related to Bobi Wine continued.

What followed, occasionally, were empty government rhetoric to bring the perpetrators to justice. At best, the officers involved were apparently paraded before disciplinary committees of the security forces to create an impression that justice was being done when in fact, it was not. It is important to note that the alleged actions were criminal acts and as such, cannot be tried in a disciplinary court.

For justice to prevail, the officers ought to be produced before a criminal court to answer criminal charges. Disciplinary proceedings for criminal acts, at best, is a mere charade and cannot deliver effective redress for rights violations.

In October 2018, the country witnessed yet another brutal violation of rights. A few meters off Christ the King Church in the city center, security operates in civilian clothes descended on a civilian, Yusuf Kawooya, and brutally tortured him in broad daylight sustaining broken ribs. Several other similar incidents of arbitrary arrests and beating of civilians during protests were reported during the year.

Long pre-trial detention further remained a major concern. During the year, 52% of Uganda’s prison population constituted pre-trial detainees in heavily congested prisons that have occupancy rates of over 300%. What is deeply disturbing is that the reasons behind this crisis are largely avoidable.

For example, if we end arbitrary arrests, effectively regulate sanctioning powers of state attorneys to keep away frivolous charges, reform the ineffective committal system and the administration of the right to bail, stop endless court adjournments, and ensure better management of diversion programs would go a long way in easing the situation.

In 2018, the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) engaged in active policing work. They repeatedly conducted arrests and detentions of civilians contrary to section 4 (2) of the Security Organisations Act that forbids an officer of the intelligence organisations from exercising powers of arrest, detention or confinement of any person. They are required to direct a police officer to enforce the arrest.

As a result of the active involvement of the security organisations that have no gazetted detention facilities for civilians or established procedures of managing detained suspects, incidents of incommunicado detention were common during the year. Cases of enforced disappearances were also reported. Folks disappeared and their loved ones had no idea where they had been taken. Med Kaggwa, the Chairman of the Uganda Human Rights Commission recently revealed how the commission discovered five missing people locked-up at a detention facility under the control of the army.

Lack of effective redress for most of these violations and abuses emboldened impunity for crimes.

Earlier in April 2018, the new Inspector General of Police (IGP) took some positive steps. He, for example, ordered the closure of Nalufenya, the Jinja-based notorious detention facility known for torture. In May, he ordered for the disbandment of the Uganda Police Flying Squad Unit, an outfit known for torture, extortion and lengthy detention of suspects.

The IGP further issued several guidelines on arrests and other key areas of police operations that if implemented, would help reform the force in the respective areas. Unfortunately, the guidelines have not translated into practice. At least not yet.

We need to do more in 2019 to stand up for civil liberties. We cannot afford to be disinterested.