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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

Benet: Uganda’s stateless people

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Kapchewuut cave in Benet Sub-County in Kween District still acts as a home for some of the evicted people who were evicted 13 years ago from their ancestral home.

Kampala, Uganda. The Ugandan government must recognise the Benet as the indigenous inhabitants of the forest from which it evicted them and restore them to their ancient home.

Amnesty International, the London-based international human rights NGO made the demand in a report titled, ‘13 Years in Limbo: Forced Evictions of the Benet in the Name of Conservation,’ that it launched on Nov.08.

“The treatment of the Benet is a flagrant violation of Uganda’s constitution and its own international human rights obligations,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East and Southern Africa during the release of the report.

This is the latest call for the restoration of the rights of the Benet, a community of an estimated 18,000 people who lost their ancestral land in Mount Elgon area of Sebei in eastern Uganda in 1920 when the British colonial protectorate classified the moorland and grasslands as a forest reserve.

Subsequent governments have piled violations on the minority group, including violent forced evictions since 1983, further deepening the plight and poverty of this community. Amnesty International says the Benet face a multi-generational struggle.

The Benet is one of Uganda’s indigenous ethnic minority groups who have been deprived of their right to health, adequate housing and education, it said.

“They are still living in temporary settlements made of flimsy huts of mud and stick, deprived of essential services such as clean drinking water and electricity and cut off from healthcare and education,” said Muchena.

Perhaps the most brutal evictions happened on Feb.16 in 2008 when 178 families were rendered homeless.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority and the national army—the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF)—forcefully evicted the families claiming they were still settled inside the national park despite government allocating the same land to them after previous evictions.

People’s houses and crops were destroyed, cattle were confiscated. The displaced Benet found shelter wherever they could: in caves and under trees. The luckier ones stayed in a nearby primary school or joined relatives elsewhere.

David Chemutai, the current coordinator of the Benet-Mosop Indigenous Community Association, a community based organisation in Kween District in eastern Uganda still remembers the 2008 evictions.

“I came back home from school only to find our home burnt. All the houses in the homestead were burnt,” he told The Independent on Nov.10, “Our food which we used to keep in the house was also burnt. My parents were gone and I did not know where to find them.”

Chemutai who was 23 at the time was only able to find his parents days later in a cave. Over a decade later, hundreds of families of the Benet community still live in temporary resettlement sites. Some still live in the cave.

They accuse UWA of killings, unlawful use of force and firearms, including shootings, beatings, and even crimes under international law, including torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. This often happens when they try to enter the forest which was declared a national park in 1993.

In 2004, the Uganda Land Alliance (ULA) filed a legal suit, Uganda Land Alliance, Ltd. v. Uganda Wildlife Authority in the High Court of Uganda on behalf of the Benet community, for enforcement of their right to use their forest land.

On 27 October 2005, the court in a judgment commonly referred to as the “Consent Judgment”, which was settled and agreed to by the affected Benet community, the UWA, and the Attorney General of Uganda, recognised the Benet as the historical and indigenous inhabitants of the forest that the government had classified a national park in 1993.

The judgment underlined the need to “redress the imbalance” facing the Benet in education, infrastructure, health, and social services, provided for under Article 32 of Uganda’s Constitution.

Despite the court ruling, the Benet are still not permitted to build permanent structures and live in small huts constructed from sticks and mud in temporary resettlement camps, with no electricity and potable water.

The restriction has impacted the Benet peoples’ agro-pastoral lifestyle and other economic, social, and cultural practices such as the right to access cultural sites for rituals, fruit gathering, bee keeping, and hunting.

“We are now a stateless community,” says Chemutai, “This is something we are still fighting for.”

The Uganda Wildlife Authority insists it is not to blame for the fate of the Benet.

“We are not responsible for the gazettement and degazettement of these places. The Uganda Wildlife Authority only manages these spaces,” Bashir Hangi, the UWA public relations officer,told The Independent on Nov.10, “Regardless whether they were evicted or not, when the government handed over the area to us, we had no alternative but remove the people.”

But Amnesty International’s Muchena says academic research says conservation, such as by UWA, works best when the state works with the indigenous people as equal partners in conservation.

“It must not result in human rights violations, or be used to justify them,” he said.

Original Source: independent.co.ug

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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

State fails to produce a key witness, prematurely closes its prosecution in the trial of the eight land rights defenders

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By the Witness Radio team,

The state prematurely closed its prosecution in the trial of the eight community land rights defenders after it failed to produce its last witness, the Investigating Officer (IO).

Mwawula Fred, Ramu Ndahimana, Samuel Kusiima, Martin Munyansia, Martin Haweka, Amos Wafula, Eliot Talemwa, and George Rwakabisha are facing a charge of threatening violence, which attracts a four-year sentence upon conviction.

Upon closure of the prosecution, the defense lawyers applied for the dismissal of the case for want of prosecution, adding the evidence before the court too weak to sustain a conviction

The court has directed the defense to file its written submission and serve the prosecution by 10th February 2022.

Since 2020, the prosecution has only presented two witnesses, which resulted in the trial being marred with unnecessary adjournments and transfers of trial magistrates.

The prosecution alleges that on September 4th, 2020, the eight community rights defenders, while at Kisalanda village, allegedly threatened to harm one of the police officers guarding Great Season SMC Limited’s plantation.

Great seasons SMC Limited is one of the multinationals that have forcefully evicted thousands of local farmers and criminalized activities of community land rights defenders for resisting illegal and forceful evictions of poor communities in the Kiryandongo district. The others include Kiryandongo Sugar Company and Agilis Partners Limited.

The court will rule on the application to dismiss the case on the 20th of March 2022

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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

Mubende police arrest and charge farmers that workers of a tree-planting company attacked.

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By Witness Radio team

Five smallholder farmers have been arrested and charged with malicious damage by Mubende police, Witness Radio Uganda has learned.

The victim farmers include; Kabuka Levi, Lubwama Robert, Bulegeya Erisa, Byakatonda David, and Byamukama Yuda are among the victims of the company attacks. Upon arrest, they (victims) recorded statements and later were released on police bond.

Before their arrest, the farmers had opened several cases against their tormentors (company workers) for attacking and destroying their properties worth millions of Shillings. Several files were opened including SD.ref/09/07/12/2022 and SD.ref/12/07/12/2022 against company workers. However, to their surprise, the police made a U-turn and got them arrested.

On December 7th, 2022, in the wee hours of that day, a group of over 20 casual workers linked to Formosa limited, a tree planting company based in Mubende district attacked several families, properties like houses and food crop plantations were destroyed, and several farmers were severely beaten with intentions of forcing them off their land.

“When we reached Mubende police, we were all arrested and interrogated for almost an hour before recording statements on malicious damage charges. The company reported that we cut its trees and had photos as evidence which we did not do.” Mr. Kabuka Levi told Witness Radio in an interview.

In the meantime, the same company in 2017 caused the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of 5 community land rights defenders for 15 years and 35 years on murder and other charges. The five include; Paul Sinamenya, Richard Ssemombwe, Fenehansi Kaberuka, Esau Hategeka, Godfrey Bukenya, Yonnah Ssebanenya, and Sserugo Sam Ssemigo.

Witness Radio appealed against the conviction of 5 defenders for review and is waiting on the appellant court to set the hearing date of the case.

Since 2011, Formasa company under the protection of private security guards and the police has grabbed 2590 hectares that were a source of livelihood for hundreds of poor communities.

The land grabbing has affected over ten (10) villages including Butoro, Kyedikyo, Nakasozi, Namayindi, Kitebe, Kisiigwa, Mukiguluka, Busaabala, and Kicucuulo located both in Maduddu and Butoloogo sub-counties in Mubende district.

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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

Community land rights defenders that have been on trial since 2020; are set to return to court this January.

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By Witness Radio Team.

The criminal trial of eight (8) Community land rights defenders on charges of threatening violence is to resume on the 23rd of January 2022, with the state producing its final witness.

The defense lawyers are preparing a submission of no case to answer upon closure of the prosecution’s case because of the insufficiency of the case.

So far, the prosecution has presented two witnesses before the court since 2020, whose trial sessions have been marred with unnecessary adjournments and transfers of hearing magistrates.

The eight community land rights defenders include; Mwawula Fred, Ramu Ndahimana, Samuel Kusiima, Martin Munyansia, Martin Haweka, Amos Wafula, Eliot Talemwa, and George Rwakabisha were charged with threatening violence, a charge that attracts a four-year sentence upon conviction.

The prosecution alleges that on September 4th, 2020, the eight and others, while at Kisalanda village, allegedly threatened to harm one of the police officers guarding Great Season SMC Limited’s plantation.

In November 2020, the prosecution disclosed to defense lawyers and informed the court that investigations were closed and the prosecutor’s chambers were ready to proceed to trial.

Great seasons SMC Limited is one of the multinationals that have forcefully evicted thousands of local people and later criminalized activities of smallholder farmers that have resisted illegal evictions in the Kiryandongo district. The others include Kiryandongo Sugar Company and Agilis Partners Limited.

The trial will start at 10 am East African Time.

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