Convictions overturned after 'merciless' torture finding by Ugandan high court

Elements of the Ugandan state have been found by the high court’s anti-corruption division to have been responsible for brutal torture aimed at extracting confessions from two employees of the Uganda Revenue Authority. Judge Lawrence Gidudu, head of the country’s anti-corruption court, awarded compensation and punitive damages for the torture, but also asked some questions about the handling of the two tortured detainees that the authorities will find uncomfortable and difficult to answer. The judge further ruled that the conviction of the two men be set aside on the basis that no conviction may result in a case where torture has been used to extract a confession.

Read judgment

A new judgment from the high court of Uganda’s anti-corruption division, puts the spotlight on elements of the state using brutal torture to extract confessions.

Judge Lawrence Gidudu, head of Uganda’s anti-corruption court, was hearing cases brought by Robert Asiimwe and Kalemba Stevens, both of whom worked for the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), the first as a customs officer and the second as a driver.

The two, who brought claims under the country’s constitution and the Human Rights Enforcement Act, said they were tortured during prolonged detention and injured so badly that, even weeks later, their injuries were obvious during medical examinations and could be clearly seen on photographs.

Blindfolded

The state claimed they stole USD 410 000 from an outfit called GAK Express, allegations denied by both men.

Asiimwe said that in February 2021, he was called by a senior employee of the URA to join a planned operation, but this was a ruse and when he arrived, he was arrested at gun point, pushed into a vehicle and taken to the URA offices. There he was confronted by police and soldiers attached to the URA.

According to Asiimwe, a senior officer told him to confess ‘or be tortured by the Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce’.

A few days later he was blindfolded and taken to the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) where he was tortured.

Paralysis

The judge gave some details from Asiimwe’s claim: ‘Torture was administered by beating, boxing, kicking, using metal wires, kicked in the ribs with combat boots, burning him with hot metals under his feet, chaining his hands and arms behind his back, dragging him on the floor while pulling the ropes tied [round] his neck and arms, hitting his toes, ankles and elbows and suspending him in [the] air while tying his neck, legs and arms.

‘It was executed by 10 well-muscled men using weapons such as guns, sticks, batons, metal bars, pliers, chains, ropes and electric wires.’

Photographs taken soon afterwards by Asiimwe’s brother were shown to the court. Asiimwe claimed that, as a result of the torture, his body was swollen, he developed wounds on his legs, back and hands. He had chest pains, pain in the ribs, abdominal pain and paralysis, and was given no treatment.

Two days later, he was returned to the CMI and tortured again.

Dangerous harm

Later, because of the state of his health, the police at the special investigation unit took him to a police surgeon for a medical assessment. Also, during this period, several court orders for his release were served on the security agencies, but they were ignored until 19 March 2021 when he was charged in court. Released on bail, he laid charges of torture with the police. One medical certificate showed that he had been injured by ‘blunt objects and hot substances’, and his injuries were classified as ‘dangerous harm’.

Another doctor said, in an affidavit, that he examined Asiimwe and found he had ‘grievous wounds’ on his legs, feet, back, hands, thighs and buttocks. From laboratory tests the doctor concluded that Asiimwe had been subjected to ‘significant blunt trauma. He said he suffered lung contusion due to blunt trauma and suffered ‘persistent paralysis in the legs and thighs’.

The evidence of Stevens Kalemba was similar.

Severity

In response, officials of the ministry of defence and veterans affairs said the allegations of torture were ‘baseless and false’. Other officials involved in the investigation of the missing money said they had no knowledge of the alleged torture, but claimed that the two men were ‘credibly linked’ to the disappearance of the cash.

Judge Gidudu quoted the Ugandan constitution as well as international conventions on torture and found that the allegations, filed by the two men, corresponded with international definitions of torture and were backed up by the photographic evidence shown to the court and by medical reports.

While the attorney general’s legal team argued that the court should only consider very severe injuries as ‘torture’, the court pointed out that human rights were not ‘subject to grading based on severity’: human rights are inviolable, said the judge.

Mercilessly battered

The court also expressed concern about other aspects of the matter: the two men were tricked by a ruse as if they were terrorists, for example. There was no evidence that they were in hiding, so why had ambushes been staged to arrest them? Why were so many soldiers and officers ‘deployed in the night to arrest two unarmed civilians working in the same organisation’? Who was the complainant in relation to the money? And why did the police assign the URA to prosecute the case, when it was a tax body and the two accused were not tax defaulters?

He also highlighted the detention of more than two weeks and the use of URA officials and soldiers as part of an investigation of non-tax offences.

The injuries sustained by the men were ‘gruesome to say the least’ and confirmed they were ‘mercilessly battered’ by the military which should have had no role in the investigation.

Impact

After the torture and detention, the two men were convicted in the criminal courts in relation to the missing money. However, said Judge Gidudu, that conviction had to be set aside given the torture.

Outlining the continuing impact of the torture and detention on the two men, the judge said an appropriate damages award had to be made. Some past awards as compensation for injury inflicted during police detention were so low, however, that they ‘may encourage acts of torture rather than stop them’ and he did not follow their lead.

In all, he awarded UGX 250 million to Asiimwe as compensation and punitive damages, and UGX 150 million to Kalemba for compensation and punitive damages.

Satisfying

Given the horrifying torture perpetrated on the two men as recently as last year in Uganda, this is a satisfying judgment and the judge had some particularly important comments to make. But it might have been even stronger if the judge had recommended that a copy of his decision be handed to the relevant authorities for possible investigation in relation to the torturers.

  • According to Ugandan media, the CMI was placed under a new commander earlier this year, after the previous head, Major General Abel Kandiho, was sanctioned by the US government because of alleged involvement in human rights abuses. The US claimed that Kandiho had been personally involved in the abduction and torture of government critics.
  • ‘A matter of justice’, Legalbrief, 20 September 2022
x123xx