The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stories of torture emerge as Uganda releases Bobi Wine supporters

David Lule, an opposition supporter, was detained by Uganda's military for a month this year. (Esther Ruth Mbabazi/for The Washington Post)
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KAMPALA, Uganda — Just two days before Uganda’s election in January, David Lule recalled, men dressed in black broke into his home in the middle of the night, threw him into a truck, pulled a hood over his head, and beat him until he passed out.

The opposition supporter regained consciousness as he was being led down a staircase into a basement, where he was made to stand with his face against a wall — just the beginning of an ordeal that would include humiliation, deprivation and two weeks of solitary confinement.

“Whoever passed would swing a hit on any part of my body," Lule said in a recent interview. "Before they hit me, they would say, ‘You are the NUP people.’ One hit my ear so hard saying, ‘You are people power.’”

Lule was one of hundreds of Ugandans detained in the lead-up to the election by the country’s security forces, which have a well-documented history of brutality against rebel militias and terror suspects. Yoweri Museveni, who won his sixth term in January, often boasts of their brutality, and has taken in billions in security assistance, largely from the United States, to bolster the forces.

But that apparatus, trained to suppress potential unrest with brute force, was turned against supporters of the opposition National Unity Platform, who now are quietly being released. Three shared stories of torture they endured in detention.

They are civilians, but they were released on bail pending a military court-martial hearing. The proceedings are closed to the press.

The Ugandan military declined to comment on individual cases. Deo Akiiki, a spokesman for Uganda’s military, said he was tired of responding to allegations of abuse and that “he who alleges must prove.” Another military spokeswoman, Flavia Byekwaso, called the allegations of torture “really absurd.”

In Uganda, Museveni steamrolls to a sixth term. Billions in U.S. aid help him stay in power.

The three men alleging abuse said they never understood what crimes they were being accused of, as the allegations leveled against them amounted to basic support for Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, who challenged Museveni in the election and now alleges it was rigged. Wine’s supporters protested the government in the months before the election, and in November, dozens were killed and many more arrested.

After being brought to the same “reception” room where Lule was beaten, another prisoner, Umaru Kagimu, said he was blindfolded for days, his feet were zapped with electric shocks, and he was doused in water and made to roll back and forth across a veranda for hours. Kagimu, an opposition supporter, had been arrested in the photocopy shop he owns, where the NUP had paid him to make copies of documents for them.

“Then they made us stand and keep jumping, and every time you jump you have to say, ‘I won’t return to the streets,’” he said in an interview at his home.

Kagimu and Lule said they witnessed dozens of others going through similar treatment in the facilities where they were imprisoned.

Museveni has spoken openly about the arrests, saying in a speech last month that he called in a commando unit that had distinguished itself while deployed in Somalia and that had “destroyed” a rebel militia. He read from a list of 177 names, saying those people had been arrested and either charged and kept in detention or released on bail.

“This group quickly defeated the terrorists who had started operating here," he said in the speech. “They killed a few who tried to attack them and arrested scores of those law breakers.”

Lule and Kagimu said they were taken to a building in the capital, Kampala, that houses the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, which Ugandan human rights lawyers and activists say is where political prisoners are often brought. Male Musa, the brother of an NUP politician, said he was taken to a house in the suburb of Mukono.

Nicholas Opiyo, a renowned Ugandan lawyer, was also arrested in the days leading up to the election but was released after an international pressure campaign. Museveni has successfully suppressed armed movements within Uganda, Opiyo said, and so has turned his security forces on others that threaten his power, namely Bobi Wine and his supporters.

“He took the election as an insurrection and not as an election," he said. “They never took their opponents as people exercising a legitimate right to contest for power.”

Wine was kept under house arrest for days after the election and is still prevented from engaging openly with his supporters. The NUP’s offices are routinely surrounded by security forces whenever a meeting is held there. The party says 423 of its members are still missing, and only 89 of them were on Museveni’s list.

The repression surrounding the election has drawn reprove from the U.S. government, Museveni’s biggest outside financial supporter, but no changes to U.S. policy in Uganda have yet been announced.

“Uganda’s January 14 elections were marred by elections irregularities and abuses by the government’s security services against opposition candidates and members of the civil society," said State Department spokesman Ned Price at a press briefing in February. “We will consider a range of targeted options to hold accountable those members of the security forces responsible for these actions."

Human rights groups have compiled hundreds of reports of abuses by Uganda’s security forces since Museveni came to power in 1986, though researchers said scrutiny had increased since they started receiving funding and training from Western partners.

“Shaming and condemnatory statements haven’t amounted to accountability or fundamental changes in approach either from the government or from its many bilateral donors. Naming and shaming alone seems particularly dead in the Uganda context," said Maria Burnett, a senior associate at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, who worked in Uganda for years as a researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“Over the years of documentation, our sense was that the arresting personnel were really seeking forced confessions," she said. "Back in the day it was allegations of being rebels. Nowadays its allegations of being NUP.”

Musa and Lule both described how the officers who beat them and interrogated them repeatedly asked them for information on the NUP’s supposed “Plan B” — an allusion they took to mean that the NUP was thought to be planning violence after the election. They were also asked about foreign funding the officers believed Wine was receiving.

Musa said that during interrogation, one officer put out a cigarette on his chest, another beat his toes until a nail came off, and others tied his elbows behind his back with ropes. He was released after 52 days in detention.

After meeting the military officer, Kagimu said, he was whipped with an electric wire and forced to sleep in a small, filthy bathroom. In the morning, he was given a red beret, which is commonly associated with the NUP, and asked to wear it while raising his hand with a clenched fist. Officers then took pictures of him. That same day, he said, he was produced in front of a judge and presented with the same pictures and asked to plead guilty. A few days later, he was released on bail.

Lule was the most outspoken NUP supporter of the three. When an officer asked him about “Plan B,” he began to say that the plan was to dislodge Museveni from power, but before he completed his sentence, he said, he was hit in the head with a chair.

The NUP has continued to question the official results of the election. On Tuesday, Bobi Wine called for a nationwide peaceful protest to demand that Museveni release all political prisoners and stop the trial of civilians in military courts: “We demand that General Museveni immediately puts an end to the abduction and kidnap of our people who are taken away every day."