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…..Special Report; Abridged testimony….. Arbitrary arrested and detained for representing PAPs; an experience of the Witness Radio – Uganda lawyer

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By witnessradio.org Team

Joan Buryerali is one of the seven lawyers who were kidnapped during the COVID-19 lockdown in the Kiryandongo district. The basis for the lawyers’ physical interface with Project Affected Persons (PAPs) was to gather more evidence in the run-up to the numerous cases filed against multinationals at the Masindi High Court.

Since 2017, three multinational companies namely; Great Seasons SMC Limited, owned by a Sudanese investor based in Dubai, Kiryandongo Sugar Limited, belonging to one Mauritius family called RAI Dynasty, and Agilis Partners Limited run by American twin brothers (Benjamin Prinz and Phillip Prinz) that are illegally and forcefully evicting more than 35,000 people off their land.

In March 2020, the Government of Uganda issued a directive halting any land eviction during the COVID period. However, this was disregarded; illegal evictions and violations/abuses of human rights continued across the country. Kiryandongo was among the hard-hit districts. Kiryandongo district recorded the highest level of impunity from some powerful investors and security operatives.

In response to the numerous distress calls, a team of seven lawyers set out to collect real evidence from individual community members affected by large-scale agricultural projects. On 29th June 2020, they traveled 220 Kilometers Northwest of Kampala on a mission to address the increased violence meted against the local population.

The actual work started on 30th June 2020. The lawyers drove 45 minutes deep in villages to meet victim communities and work commenced at 0900 hours East Africa Standard time from the hotel.

According to Buryerali, COVID-19 Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were observed as each lawyer had to keep a distance from each other and 6 meters with the victim being interviewed.

At around 15:00 hours, anti-riot police attached to Kiryandongo district police under the command of ASP Joseph Bakaleke arbitrarily rounded and forcefully arrested all the lawyers plus the seven (7) victim members that were being interviewed.  Police bundled them on a police patrol and another private numbered double cabin vehicle, which was later discovered to be driven by one of the Agilis Partners’ managers.

Below is Joan’s ordeal on the day of the arbitrary arrest and detention;

“We were ordered to stop whatever we were doing and jump onto police vehicles. When we tried to ask for reasons behind our kidnap, the Kiryandongo district Deputy Head of Criminal Investigation Department D/OCCID) Nyakaisiki Beatrice told us it was an order from above. She added that the DPC wanted us at  Kiryadongo central police station.  At that point, we had no choice but surrender ourselves to the gun wielding police officers who took us to the station.

On reaching there, neither was the District Police Commander (DPC) nor the Resident District Commissioner (President’s representative at the district) in office. There was one Ochenge Ismael, (Officer-in-charge of police unit administration) who stood in for the DPC. We tried to explain the essence of our work but our efforts were futile; the intention was to intimidate and have us detained. The sole purpose for this was to instill fear in us so that we abandon the eviction case.

The police officers had been bribed by these multinational companies to humiliate us before the people we were helping. Subsequent to failure to provide answers, the officer in charge ordered us to remove our shoes, enter the police cells, and wait for the DPC who later showed up the following morning.

While at the station, we kept on asking what crimes we had committed to whoever cared to listen. The D/OC CID insisted that it was an order from above.

After like three minutes another police officer came and commanded our team leader to move out. The same police officer returned and told us to vacant his office since it was time for official closure.

When we moved out, we found other police officers degrading and lifting our team leader by his trousers, yet he was calm. Irked by their inhumane treatment, we asked the police officers to stop harassing him. Our verbal exchange with the police escalated and they threatened to beat us. We were again told to remove shoes and leave our belongings at the police reception. We objected because we could no longer trust them. We instead handed over the items to our driver who would later transferred them to the hotel where we had previously spent the night. That evening, we were separated. The female lawyers were put in a congested cell separate from the one designated for men.

The police cell was very horrible! The foul smell was unbearable. The walls and floor were a mess. There was no cleaner space for any of us to scramble. The stench coming from the toilet was sickening if not stomach-turning! The filthy mattresses emitted urinal and faecal stench. The blankets were equally soiled. They had taken ages unwashed. The disturbing atmosphere kept us awake. At different intervals, each of us planted our nostrils on some big hole on the door to catch some fresh air. Kiryandongo police cell was not fit for human habitant. It was unhealthy for human beings to be there. Worst of all you were told to remove our shoes and move barefoot on such a dirty floor. Every single time I think about how dirty the cell was I feel disgusted. We even failed to eat have dinner. We surrendered our share to the women inmates. There was no way one could comfortably eat something in such a dirty place.

We could not use the sanitary facilities inside the cells. The women we found there had infections as a result of the dirty toilets. We instead accessed the outside facilities barefoot. To our dismay, they were also unclean. The following day, as we left the cell I could not touch my soiled and pathetic feet.

At about 9:00 am, Bakaleke Joseph, the then DPC showed up and we were released on bond. However, what saddened my heart was that the police officers knew that we had not committed any crime but detained us to sabotage our work.

At first, we were released without being charged. But for fear of being questioned, they arrested us again. This time we were charged with the offenses of conducting an unlawful assembly and spreading an infectious disease. These offenses were all false and fabricated. We had followed all COVID rules to the letter. Instead, the anti riot police flouted the rules by not wearing masks during the arbitrary arrest.

Immediately after our release, I imagined how our clients had lost faith in us. I felt harassed and belittled in front of the people I was supporting to get justice. Kiryandongo police painted a picture that they were superior and that the PAPs have nowhere to run to for any immediate assistance.

I have a dented professional because of the arbitrary arrest. I am being viewed as a chaotic person if not a criminal. This is because most people think that police only arrest offenders of the law. I no longer have a clear criminal record in the eyes of the public.

Why Criminalization?

Criminalization may be defined as the use of legal framework strategies targeting HRDs to illegitimate the work of HRDs. Its ultimate aim is to attack HRDs and/or impede their work. The criminalization of human rights defenders’ work through the misuse of criminal law involves the manipulation of the state’s punitive power by state and non-state actors to hinder their work in defense and thus prevent the legitimate exercise of their right to defend human rights

Criminalizing Human rights defenders’ work may lead to stigmatizations and delegitimization which affects the honor and public reputation of HRDs. Many analysts argue that stigmatization is part of the criminalization process.  The explanation of why delegitimization, stigmatization, and other forms of disparagement are sometimes equated with criminalization may lie in the fact that they may precede, or occur in parallel to, criminalization processes and that the aim in both cases appears to be to damage the public image of the HRDs so targeted.

“Speaking on behalf of the seven lawyers that were arbitrarily arrested and detained in Kiryandongo during COVID 19 lock-down, the actions of police tarnished our names. A mark was left on our reputation whereby some people in the society see us as chaotic and criminal individuals. Once you’re profiled and your name enters that criminal book, some officials may conclude that you no longer have a clear record.” Said Joan Buryerali

Effects of Criminalization of a PAPs’ lawyer?

There could be more effects to the use criminalize the work of a defense lawyer but, the immediate one is stigmatization. In other words, stigmatization and delegitimization should be considered as causes and/or consequences of criminalization. Criminalization involves the use of criminal charges to attack the work of human rights defenders. It may also be organized in such a way that it questions the personal or professional integrity of the HRDs it targets.

“Some Law firms and Organizations would not want to work with someone who does not have a clean record. They may hesitate to employ you thinking you will become a problem to them. This limits my working opportunities.” Said Bulyerali.

Criminalization may cause a financial burden on the victim HRD. Upon being released either on police bond or court bail, HRDs are required to report back (travel 440 Kilometers on every reporting) until a matter is heard and disposed of. Also, HRDs are forced to hire a lawyer to defend themselves.

Most importantly, criminalization is time-consuming and can ably cause physiological torture. Kampala where I am based and Kiryandongo district, these two places are distant from the other when reporting on police bond or court bail, you need two days on every reporting.

Criminalization has restricted my freedom of expression;

Restrictions on the freedom of expression are aimed at causing generalized fear, intimidating and silencing the denunciations, claims, and grievances of the victims of human rights violations, spurring on impunity, and impeding the full realization of the rule of law and democracy. For stance in Kiryandongo district several lawyers and many community land right defenders, some of them include Stella Akitenge, Atyaluk David Richard, Olupot James, Benon Baryaija and many others have been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment or tortured, just because they are helping victim communities to mobilize, resist and push back such illegal evictions.

Using the restrictive legal framework to criminalize my work.

Some laws such as the Public Order Management Act, 2013 (POMA), Non-Governmental Organizations Act, 2016, the Anti-Terrorism Act, and the Financial Intelligence Act, have been used by some duty bearers to restrict the extent of work/ operations of HRDs.

In 2013, the POMA was passed to regulate freedom of assembly and ultimately the freedom of association. As seen above, the POMA is often cited by duty bearers to restrict civil society space. The law as it currently stands imposes conditions on holding public gatherings and demonstrations and criminalizes meetings held in contravention of section 5 of the POMA.

The police have on many occasions said that we did not ask for permission before conducting a meeting and they break it up. And yet the POMA only mentions giving notification to the authorized officer if the meeting falls within those regulated by the POMA.

Regarding the seven lawyers that were arrested in Kiryandongo by police, it hind behind POMA to detain the lawyers in cells for the whole night with an aim of not wanting them to proceed with their work and intimidate them. These arrests meanwhile are just to scare them trying to instill fear in them that in case they proceed with their work, they will be dealt with.

Conclusion

In many aspects as already demonstrated above, the COVID-19 period in Uganda presented difficulties and effects on the work of HRDs particularly lawyers for the PAPs, which projects a dark future. The challenging situation shared in this article should be used as a precursor to reflect and discuss the best environment for all defenders to do their work.

Natives and Businesses

LOCKDOWN VIOLENCE ALERT: As lockdown bites, multinationals resort to the use of herds hired from pastoralists to evict locals off their land.

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A herd of cattle after destroying a local resident’s maize plantation.

By witnessradio.org Team

Kiryandongo – Uganda – As natives continue to resist illegal evictions, multinational companies opt to hire livestock as a new tactic to forcefully evict smallholder farmers from their land.

Ever since the government of Uganda announced the second lockdown, on 6th June 2021,  to curb the spread of COVID-19 and a blanket lockdown further on June, 18th 2021, dozens of local farmers are crying foul for their gardens that have been ravaged their gardens and destroyed food crops by animals brought by multinationals including Agilis Partners Limited.

On June, 18th 2021, on top of the closure of schools and a ban on inter-district travels, closure of courts, the government announced a total ban on both private and public transport, reduced human workforce presence in public offices to 10, and announced a stay home for 42 days.

The violence from multinationals, which started with the arbitrary arrest of four people including two community land rights defenders; Baluma Sepriano, and Martin Munyansi, has now spread to gardens owned by smallholder farmers, which have been a food basket in the presence of the lockdown.

It is important to note that since 2017, families whose land is targeted by multinationals have experienced cruelty ranging from rape, defilement, and gender-based violence as a tool to evict women and girls, houses have been torched, kidnaps, torture, arbitrary arrests, to beatings, among others.

Witness Radio – Uganda findings, indicate that Agilis Partners Limited is one of the multinationals that has allegedly hired cattle to destroy the communities’ food baskets and cause hunger to evictees, which in the end the situation at hand would force poor communities off the land. Other multinational companies include the Great Season SMC Limited and the Kiryandongo Sugar Limited.

Since the second lockdown started, about 15 homesteads have lost family gardens to animals. The 15 homesteads are owned by individuals who are part of the 35000 that are forcefully being evicted by three multinationals. More than half of the evictees have lost their farmland to multinationals as more land is acquired by force.

Mr. Samuel Kusiima is among the residents affected, he said all his crops including maize, beans, banana plantations, and groundnuts have been destroyed.

The 45 year- old’s dream was to build a better house for his family after the harvest but all this was shuttered by the Balaalo’s invasion.

“Look at my house, it is leaking, I bought seeds with my hard-earned money intending to construct a better house but all of my crops have been destroyed,” he added.

Mr. Kusiima fears that their families are at risk of being attacked by famine since they are left with nothing to feed on.

“We don’t have anywhere to get food and these people do not mind, they say they paid for the land. This is to force us to vacate our land for large scale plantations but we shall not,” he added

M/s Harriet Mbabazi, another resident, says the pastoralists locally known as Balaalo invade her land at night with their animals and graze on her food crops.

“The first time they came was at around 2:00 AM in the night, I heard a loud noise and at first I thought they were buffalos passing. When the sound could not stop, I decided to sneak through the window to see what was happening. This is where my eyes landed on a large herd of cattle in my garden. I did not know who owned the cattle but I had heard of several other villagers before complaining about the cows” Mbabazi added.

“I had over 56 acres but the 53 were taken by the company, with only 3 acres of land, and all I had planted was destroyed. This is our land, we are Ugandans and they found us here. We shall not leave it and we are ready to defend it. What do they want us to do!” she further added.

To understand the amount of money Balaalo paid, the size of land they will be working on and the amount of time/ number of seasons they will take while using the land, Witness Radio – Uganda contacted the manager of the company Mr. Odong Sam for the truth of the matter, but he refused to comment. Instead, he invited Witness Radio – Uganda to their offices.

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Natives and Businesses

Fresh arrests of land rights defenders, villagers in a newly announced second COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda…

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By witnessradio.org Team

Kiryandongo – Uganda, barely a week and few days into the second COVID-19 lockdown, multinationals have again taken the advantage of the situation and returned to the use of violence to dispossess poor communities of their lands and properties as four people including two land rights defenders have unlawfully been arrested by police guarding Great Seasons SMC Limited plantations.

Apart from being uniquely vulnerable to the health risk, no access to public transport, or courts of law posed by COVID-19 lockdown, multinationals are taking advantage of the situation to harass and intimidate villagers to grab their land.

In the first lockdown, which was announced on March, 18th, 2020, and eased later in the year, Witness Radio – Uganda documented more than 120 cases of criminalization of land rights defenders. Illegal arrests were made and persecutions fuelled by multinationals and their agents.

The second COVID-19 lockdown was first announced on June, 06th 2021, and later revised by the government on June, 18th 2021 is expected to last for the next 42 days. 234 deaths of Ugandans due to COVID-19 were recorded in one month of May 2021.

The four victims include land rights defenders; Baluma Sepriano, and Martin Munyansia, and the other two villagers identified as Byaruhanga Ronald aged 16, and Godfrey Munyansia aged 24, all residents of Jerusalem- Kisalanda, Kitwala sub-county in Kiryandongo district.

Both Baluma and Munyasia have pending police and court cases both at Kiryandongo central police station and Grade I (One) Magistrate court emanating from their land rights defense work.  Munyansia and the other seven (7) land rights that are charged with threatening violence are set to appear in court on August 6th, 2021 for trial.

Eyewitnesses told Witness Radio – Uganda that the operation that led to the unlawful arrest of the four people was led by the Officer in Charge (OC), Kimogola police Post, Bagadya Steven, and Abula Felix, a police officer heading the Police Protection Unit attached to Great Seasons SMC. Others in the operation were five (5) private security guards attached to the company that was armed with spears, bows, and arrows.

Eyewitnesses further explained that the police and guards attacked the families from their gardens in Kisalanda, claiming that they had trespassed on company land.

“They came in a white land cruiser numbered UBF 417C owned by Great Seasons SMC. Handcuffed and arrested them from different localities. Baluma was beaten in the process. Police and guards were loudly saying that communities have no land and they should vacate it,” one of the locals said.

Great Season SMC is among the three multinational companies that have perpetrated violence and forcefully evicted natives off their land. The others are Kiryandongo sugar company and Agilis Partners limited.

It’s also important to note that so far two people, one is a Kiryandongo district lands officer and a land broker have been arrested and charged with three counts including fraud in connection to grabbing this very land from poor communities.

Since 2017 when the multinationals entered on this land, local communities have experienced unabated violence being perpetrated by companies’ agents (private security guards, and police officers attached to Kiryandongo district police) including, sexual and gender-based violence, illegal arrest and detention, torture, kidnap, demolition of houses, cutting down their food crops, and stealing their household properties among others.

The four are being held at Kimogola police post waiting to appear before the court.

 

waiting to appear before the court.

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Natives and Businesses

A senior lands officer is arrested in connection to the Kiryandongo district land grab saga.

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A photo of a Kiryandongo senior lands officer John Lubambula.

By witnessradio.org team

Kiryandongo – Uganda – A team of police detectives attached to the Land Protection Unit, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), and the Criminal Intelligence and Investigation Directorate (CIID) have arrested a senior lands officer, Kiryandongo District Land Board for land fraud that caused a forced displacement of thousands of natives off their land.

John Lubambula is the second person to be arrested in connection to the Kiryandongo district land grab saga after a land broker Mwesigye Reuben, who was arrested and charged with three counts including fraud by a chief magistrate court based in Masindi district, mid-western Uganda.

According to police investigations, While acting as the secretary to the Kiryandingo District Land Board, Lubambula John, Mwesigye Reuben, and others at large, fraudulently transferred land ownership comprised in Block 7, Plots 66, 68, and 69 at Kimogora in Kiryandongo, and gave it to multinationals for large scale agribusiness.

Police investigations further establish that upon stealing land from the poor communities, the benefactors created plots of land and shared them amongst themselves.

The stolen land belonged to families that are part of the 35000 people being forcefully displaced by three multinational companies including Great Seasons SMC Limited, Agilis Partners Limited, and Kiryandongo Sugar Limited.

The communities plagued by the continued forced evictions comprise three categories: The first category consists of people who were born on the land since 1935; the second, those that settled on the land during and after civil wars, including the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which lasted for 2 decades in Northern Uganda from the late 1990s; and lastly, those who settled on the eviction site at the instance of government in 2011 through the Nyamalebe Landless Association.

Victims of forced land eviction accuse the group of land brokers of perpetrating violence through hiring and using machete-wielding men, private security guards, and police officers attached to Kiryandongo district police to commit violent acts which include: sexual and gender-based violence, illegal arrest and detention, torture, kidnap, demolition of houses, cutting down their food crops, and stealing their household properties among others.

“We are dying of hunger, we have nowhere to dig, and all our farming gardens were taken by the grabbers. If they see you digging, you are beaten and arrested and charged,” said, Martin Haweka, one of the project-affected families.

Led by detective Richard Ekebu, Lubambula was arrested from his office located at Kiryandongo district land board, at 1:30 pm local time on June, 16th 2021.

Lubambula is currently being detained at Kabalaga police station, waiting to be taken to Masindi magistrates court.

 

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