With practiced patience, the new police leadership has looked on quietly as soldiers deployed by the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) go about snatching civilians off streets in broad daylight or under the cover of darkness.
Officially, the police force has carefully avoided addressing journalists’ questions about alleged torture of such victims at the hands of ISO agents in ungazetted and undisclosed locations.
But inside the force, sources say considerable unhappiness is building over what some see as the irregular usurping of policing duties by other agencies. In recent multiple interviews, police insiders privately voiced their displeasure with ISO chief, Col Kaka Bagyenda’s methods of work.
According to police sources, through these actions ISO seems to have appropriated powers from police.
“We have left them to do their thing,” one angry police official said during an interview.
Public interest in these developments took hold when military intelligence first began by picking up senior police officers, around the time Gen Kale Kayihura was sacked as inspector general of police in May. The arrests occurred against the backdrop of a wave of violent crime sweeping through parts of the country.
Soon after, civilians who were close to the former police chief were also taken into custody by either the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence or ISO. Those lucky enough to regain their freedom so far have narrated tales of torture and other abuse allegedly at the hands of ISO agents in ‘safe houses’ around Kampala.
The military crackdown has left the police open to public criticism for abdicating its constitutional role although police spokesman Emilian Kayima this week refused to be drawn on this, saying the question of whether they have given up their policing function, can be answered by ISO.
“When a case is reported, we investigate it and make arrests. I am yet to find out at police but there are no complaints so far by people kidnapped by security agencies. The state doesn’t kidnap; they arrest criminals,” he said.
In this environment, other insiders say Col Kaka regularly visits police headquarters in Naguru, Kampala to meet with Kayihura’s replacement, John Martin Okoth Ochola. The two principals, sources say, talk for hours. This picture of close cooperation at the top is, however, contradicted by ISO’s lone ranger tactics.
Security sources told The Observer that while ISO shares some of its intelligence reports with police, the force which is otherwise legally mandated to detect, prevent and investigate crime, and to carry out arrests is not fully in the loop. Both ISO and the External Security Organisation (ESO) came into being with enactment of the Security Organisations Act of 1987.
Role of ISO/Police
Section 3 which lays down the functions of these agencies states that their main role is to collect, receive, and process internal and external intelligence on the security of Uganda; advise and recommend to the president or any other authority as the president may direct on what action should be taken in connection with the intelligence information collected.
Contrary to what is happening, the Act under section 4(1) is specific about arresting powers.
The section states that;
“No officer or employee of either organisation shall take action directed against or affecting any person following intelligence gathered pursuant to section 3 unless that action has first been sanctioned by the president or such other authority as the president may direct, except that either of the directors general may direct the police to arrest and detain, in relation to intelligence gathered any person for not more than forty eight hours pending a report by the Director General under section 3 (b) and a decision by the President,”
Section 4(2) states further that that “No officer or employee of either organisation shall have power to arrest, detain, or confine any person by virtue only of being an officer or employee of the organisation.”
The law goes on in section 12 to state that any officer or employee of the organisations who arrests, detains or confines any person in contravention of the Act is liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment not exceeding ten years.
The Constitution under Article 212, states that the police’s roles are to protect life and property, to preserve law and order and to prevent and detect crime. Article 212(d) says police will cooperate with the civilian authority and other security organs.
Detailed explanation of these roles can be found in the Police Act 1994 (as amended). Interviewed about the arrests of civilians by ISO, Col Kaka was unapologetic. He wondered why other people can pick civilians off streets without presenting an arrest warrant and soldiers cannot.
“I don’t know why it is so special when army officers arrest people who commit crime yet people on streets, and villages arrest others when they are not even in security uniforms,” he told The Observer on Monday, August 6.
His understanding of how suspects should be handled is reported to have attracted police opposition recently. Police insiders said that weeks ago Ochola declined an ISO request for police officers to parade on camera suspects the agency had arrested from upcountry.
Ochola, according to interviewed sources, didn’t want to sully the reputation of his officers, given the constitutional protections and rights of suspects until one is proved guilty. More worrying is that the manner in which ISO operations are being conducted has increased the risk of a friendly fire incident with police personnel.
“They can easily be mistaken for thugs by police,” one officer said.
The Director of Public Prosecutions Mike Chibita on Monday said his office always responds to cases of human rights abuse like torture when brought to their attention.
“We call upon the public; lawyers and civil society organisations if they know people held beyond 48 hours in custody, they can bring the matter up...The lawyers can take the matter to court and the suspects are brought to court or victims released,” he said.
Human rights lawyer and activist with the NGO, Chapter Four, Nicholas Opiyo draws attention to what Uganda’s laws says about torture of suspects.
“According to Article 44 of the Constitution, if anybody is tortured, the person who has tortured him, commits an offence. In the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture act, that person is liable and can be prosecuted or sued for the offence of torture,” he says.