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Uganda: Improved human rights record tainted by conflict, says HRW

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NAIROBI, 31 January (IRIN) - Uganda's human rights record improved throughout 2002, but this achievement was tainted by the National Resistance Movement government's continued involvement in regional conflicts, and its repression of opposition political parties, according to an international rights watchdog.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its 2002 report on Uganda, that its political landscape had been characterised by the severe restrictions imposed on opposition political parties under the existing "no-party system".

Uganda had also been a major combatant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), while at the same time the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) fought a major military offensive against the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, with severe effects on civilians in all three countries, the report said.

According to HRW, legal restrictions, particularly the new Political Organisations Law, adopted by parliament in May, which retained constitutional restrictions on political parties, as well as providing for arbitrary arrest and detention, were used to suppress political dissent.

There were also several cases of arbitrary arrest, where detainees were held in overcrowded cells and sometimes tortured by security forces. "In many cases, agents carrying out the arrests wore civilian clothes with no identifying insignia. Civilians were held in army barracks in different parts of the country (although by law the army is allowed to carry out arrests only in emergency situations)," the report stated.

New anti-terrorism legislation which came into force had further served to restrict individual and press freedoms. The legislation, known as the Anti-Terrorism Act, carried a mandatory death sentence for those found to be terrorists, HRW said.

HRW said Ugandan security forces had killed nine people and arrested over 400 during its "Operation Wembley" to crack down on criminals in Kampala.

Local authority elections in February 2002 had been marred by irregularities, but the overall level of violence was lower than that affecting the previous year's elections, and in some areas opposition representatives had been voted into leadership positions, the report noted.

Meanwhile, defenders of human rights, such as NGOs, church bodies, and other independent associations had continued to play a vital role in Uganda's public life, but their freedom was under threat from the Nongovernmental Organisations Amendment Bill brought before parliament. "The bill would introduce more complicated registration procedures, and allow the suspension of NGOs whose objectives are in contravention of any government policy or plan, and NGO leaders could be imprisoned if they violated the bill," the report stated.

Uganda's human rights record was also tainted by its involvement in two armed conflicts wracking the region, according to the report.

In March, the UPDF, with permission from the Sudanese government, launched a major offensive in southern Sudan against the LRA, which has been waging a war in northern Uganda and committing gross human rights violations since 1987. The offensive, dubbed "Operation Iron Fist", was aimed at eliminating the LRA, but resulted in severe human rights abuses against civilians when the LRA fled to mountains in southern Sudan and then crossed back into Uganda in May.

"LRA increased its attacks in northern Uganda, abducting and killing civilians, looting villages, and attacking camps for internally displaced persons. The United Nations sources indicated that the LRA had attacked 16 such camps by July," The report noted.

The UPDF also committed human rights abuses in the course of the northern war, particularly in the "protected camps" for displaced people, where they stepped up "the existing pattern of arbitrary long-term detention" of civilians suspected of collaborating with the LRA, and tortured some detainees, HRW said.

"The camps provided little or no protection from the LRA, and residents were vulnerable to abuse by the UPDF and individual soldiers. The Ugandan army recruited children in the camps as 'home guards', a reserve force used to guard the camps and fulfil other security functions," it said.

Meanwhile, the UPDF had also continued to occupy the northeastern parts of the DRC, where it trained, equipped, and supported several rival rebel groups and competing ethnic militias, which committed gross abuses and continued to recruit child soldiers, according to the report. "The Ugandan involvement fuelled conflict among different communities. Members of the UPDF continued to be involved in highly profitable business in the northeastern DRC, such as the exploitation of timber, diamonds, and gold, as well as collecting fees for the 'protection' of farms and trucks," it added.

As a result of regional conflict, Uganda was hosting close to 200,000 refugees at the beginning of 2002, coming principally from Sudan, Rwanda, and the DRC, HRW said. Their situation remained precarious, because of the lack of adequate government protection, which had hampered the efforts of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to protect them in camps and urban areas in Uganda.

[ENDS]

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