By Human Rights Watch Press
Published October 19, 2015
Ugandan police’s use of teargas, rubber bullets, and brutality to obstruct political meetings and rallies could disrupt the general elections scheduled for 2016.
Human Rights Watch has appealed to the East African country’s government to ‘condemn police interference with peaceful opposition rallies and publish guidelines on police use of teargas that comply with international standards.’
In two recent examples of the abusive and unlawful response to opposition gatherings, on September 9 and 10, 2015, police in the towns of Soroti and Jinja, eastern Uganda, fired teargas to disperse people who had gathered to hear opposition candidate Amama Mbabazi, even though there had been no disorder or violence. In some instances, police fired teargas canisters directly at individuals, turning the canisters into projectiles that caused injury, in addition to the harmful effects of teargas on the skin, eyes, and breathing. In Jinja, police lobbed teargas canisters into the grounds of a primary school, harming children.
Teachers at the Main Street Primary School in Jinja reported that police fired three canisters of teargas into the school grounds, stinging the young students’ eyes and faces. “Hospitals and schools aren’t supposed to be attacked,” a teacher said. “They’re children, innocent kids. They’re not supposed to be attacked.”
A restaurant worker in Jinja’s Kazimingi Industrial Park said her three-year-old daughter had lost consciousness after inhaling large amounts of teargas. The mother rushed the child to medical officers who confirmed that her daughter was suffering the effects of teargas.
At the rally in Soroti sports grounds, police in riot gear used teargas and shot rubber bullets at civilians.They fired teargas canisters under an NTV news vehicle, forcing journalists to take cover inside. Some people at the rally eventually threw stones and un-exploded teargas canisters toward police.
Eight journalists were injured while covering the events. The injuries included contusions, and in one case a rubber bullet wound. Journalists also had difficulty breathing due to the teargas. One print journalist said that as he left for his office to write his news story about the day’s events, two police officers openly threatened him, with one officer pointing his teargas gun directly at the journalist until he fled.
“Ugandans have the right to gather and hear information, never more so than when an election is coming up,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The reckless use of teargas is injuring people and jeopardizing a free and fair democratic atmosphere for campaigns.”
Presidential and Parliamentary elections are set for February 2016, in what will be President Yoweri Museveni’s 30th year in office. Mbabazi, his long-time ally and former prime minister, has broken with the ruling National Resistance Movement party to run against Museveni.
Another opposition presidential aspirant, Kizza Besigye, has been arrested numerous times, most recently on October 15, 2015 for allegedly seeking to hold public rallies. The official presidential campaigns are to begin on November 9, 2015.
Though the Electoral Commission stated in September that political rallies are currently unlawful because the campaign has not officially started in accordance with the Presidential Elections Act, Museveni routinely speaks and attends public events and communicates with voters about his political intentions.
Uganda’s key development partners, such as the USA, UK, the European Union, and Ireland – some of whom have directly supported public order management and community policing programs in recent years – should publicly support a call for guidelines on the use of teargas in compliance with international law. They should also publicly call for police to respect freedoms of assembly and expression throughout this critical campaign time.