Close to 120 land rights defenders and lawyers representing PAPs have been arbitrarily arrested by security forces facilitating land grabs for investors during COVID-19 lockdown.
A special report by witnessradio.org Team
12th/04/2021 – Kampala – Uganda – as Uganda struggles to strengthen measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, security agencies working for multinational companies and local investors are resorting to the use of criminal charges to criminalize the work of community land rights defenders and farming activities of local communities to fasten land grabs in Uganda.
When Uganda entered into a total COVID-19 lockdown on 31st March 2020, access to justice was constrained as courts remained closed and administrative units of police were inaccessible as well as public transport nonfunctional, which worsened the situations for land grab victims.
Since late last 2020, Uganda has eased the lockdown where some sectors including public transport, public courts, higher institutions of learning, and shopping malls have been allowed to re-open under strict orders to adhere to COVID-19 Standing Operating Procedures.
According to documented figures by Witness Radio – Uganda, lawyers representing project-affected persons, community land rights defenders, and project-affected persons’ leaders have suffered the wrath of the army, police, and private security guards protecting plantations where most victims have been tortured and mistreated while in detention.
In some cases, victims were way-laid while others were kidnapped from their homes by men cladding army uniforms and kept in incommunicado for several days.
A handful of victims have been taken to court while others are on police bond and routinely required to report on their bonds. The commonest criminal charges slapped to land rights defenders and landowners range from criminal trespass, threatening violence, and setting fire on crops.
In the case of Kiryandongo district where several multinational companies are grabbing communities’ land for several agribusinesses, more than 50 people have either been kidnapped or illegally arrested. Some of the victims are lawyers representing land grab victims including, Nafula Elizabeth, Kaijuka Ezron, Tuwayenga Brian, Buryelali Joan, Muhindo Morgan, Koloa Eric, and Marunga Christine.
The seven lawyers were rounded up by police while in the process of collecting evidence to support the human rights enforcement applications that had been filed at the Masindi High Court in order to strengthen the eviction case. On orders from the former Kiryandongo DPC Joseph Bakaleke, they were arbitrarily arrested and detained at Kiryandongo central police and charged with holding unlawful assembly and neglect to spread harmful diseases (COVID-19)
Kiryandongo, which has several multinationals including Great Seasons SMC Limited, owned by Sudan’s investor based in Dubai, Kiryandongo Sugar Limited, owned by an Indian family (RAI Dynasty), and Agilis Partners Limited which is owned by American twin brothers (Benjamin Prinz and Phillip Prinz) experienced a high level of impunity before and during COVID period as affected communities are blocked from opening criminal cases against individual police officers or individual workers of multinational companies.
On the long list of community land rights defenders from Kiryandongo district, it has Atyaluk David Richard, Akiteng Stella, Sipiriano Baluma, Mwawula Fred, Ndahimana Ramu, Kusiima Samuel, Martin Munyansia, Martin Haweka, Wafula Amos, Talemwa Eliot, Pamela Mulongo, Byaruhanga John, Namanya Samwiri Paulo, Tumusiime Sylvester, Sanyu Eriya, Byaruhanga Rogers, Nsubuga Ahmada, Zironda Simon, Aliganyira Francis, Karangwa Frank, Kaliisa Giliigoli, Emmanuel Mulyanasaka and many others.
“We are witnessing the rise of criminalization of farming activities of poor smallholder farmers and the work of community land/environmental rights defenders because security agencies working for multinationals took advantage of COVID-19 lockdown to weaken voices of affected communities from demanding access to justice. We COVID period witnessed project affected persons being sent to prison without appearing before any magistrate or judge” Said Wokulira Geoffrey Ssebaggala, Team Leader Witness Radio – Uganda.
He further explained that guards from the multinational companies accompanied by the area police in broad daylight to attack families, whisk away family heads or defenders who usually amplify voices of the affected poor families, take them to their military detach, severely beaten and tortured before being transferred to Kiryandongo district police for detention.
Ever since 2021 started, about ten (10) community land rights defenders and PAPs leaders have experienced arbitrary arrests. On the list, Olupot James and Martin Haweka, both community land rights defenders are the latest victims. Each of the victims was kidnapped from his homes by unidentified men donning Uganda People Defense Forces (UPDF) uniform.
According to eyewitnesses, when soldiers saw the smoke in Olupot’s garden, they came and asked who had set the fire, Olupot positively responded that it was him who did so trying to clear his garden for the ongoing planting season. They ordered him to sit down and started beating him. His two neighbors (Kaliisa Giligoli and Emmanuel Mulyanasaka) came to his rescue when they heard him screaming. When they tried to take photos of what was happening, when the security guard who saw them, they were manhandled before the arrest. However, the two were later released by police on their way to Kamusenene barracks. Olupot was however taken to Kiryandongo police station
For Martin Haweka, he was picked from his home by a police patrol with 10 armed men before being taken to Kimogola police post and later transferred to Kiryandongo central police station. Haweka who was found in his garden was charged with criminal trespass.
So, much as international human rights organizations such as the UN and many others have also condemned the violent arrests and evictions of the poor families from their land especially during the covid period, the three multinational companies, government, and Kiryandongo police station, evictions are still ongoing.
In a letter dated 8 December 2020 to the government of Uganda from the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the two were extremely concerned by the continued oppressing of land rights defenders in the Kiryandongo district.
They expressed their grave concerns on how local communities in Uganda are being forcefully displaced from their territory and their rights are not being upheld in line with international human rights law.
Despite a ministerial directive not to evict any land occupants during the lockdown, the companies have still intensified pressure on the locals to leave.
On 16th April 2020, the minister for Lands, Housing, and Urban Development, Mrs. Beti Kamya, announced as the government had halted all land transactions for all citizens to comply with the Presidential directive of staying at home to save their lives from COVID-19.
Among other people arrested in land eviction exercises, in other parts of the country during lockdown include; Namasiko Herbert, Namisi John, Kikenyi Anthony, Wagohoko Amuza, Wakoko Moses, Madaba Paul, Nasinge Thomas, Wanyenya Robert, Mukutte Godfrey, Wakoba Stephen, Wamukunyu Julius, Wandera Godfrey, Magobi sam, Wabuyaka Ivan, Serenyi Robert, Misaj Nasuba, Ongom Kasim, Muwayafu Kenneth, Mugisa Moses, and Nasiyo Rose were illegally arrested and charged with arson, assault, criminal trespass, and malicious damage.
Paul Buzaale, Peter Sserwanga, Francis Ssenyange, Harima Nakalema Namwandu Byarugaba, Lwanga Butenza, Alex Muddu, John Mukaku, John Mukiga, and Adam Bakku were arrested and charged with criminal trespass on a 300 acres piece of land that one Joseph Bukenya claims ownership in Masaka district.
Peter Mukiibi, Mulindwa Henry, Lukyamuzi Moses, Remegious Matovu in Mityana district and charged with threatening violence.
Edward Ssengendo, Beatrice Nabaggala, Silvia Nakaweesa, Fred Ssebakka, and Robinah Luyiga arrested by Mityana police on orders of Afande Kasooga and charged with threatening violence.