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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

…..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.

Accountable Development To Communities

Breaking: Court dismisses a criminal case against a community land rights defender for want of prosecution.

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By Witness Radio Team.

Kiryandongo. A criminal trespass case against a community land rights defender has been dismissed over the prosecution’s failure to adduce evidence before the Chief Magistrate Court that pinned the community defender on the alleged charges.

On 27th October 2021, Kiryandongo Chief Magistrate Court charged Otyaluk David with criminal trespass and remanded him to Masindi prison. He was later granted court bail and since then, he has been traveling 48 kilometers to and from court every fortnight.

Before he was presented before a court, Otyaluk was kidnapped and illegally detained in Kiryandongo Central Police Station (CPS) cells for five (5) days for trespassing on a piece of land he (Otyaluk) had lived and cultivated since he was born.

In the afternoon of 21st October, two (2) armed men cladding Uganda People Defense Forces (UPDF) uniform and police personnel raided Otyaluk’s home and got him kidnapped to an unknown destination. UPDF soldiers guard Kiryandongo Sugar Limited plantations.

“On the day of his kidnap, Otyaluk was found praying in his house. In a blink of an eye, the defender was rounded up and bundled onto a vehicle owned by Kiryandongo Sugar Limited, forcefully evicting us off our land. We later learned that he was taken into evictor’s facilities where he was kept for some time before being transferred to Kiryandongo CPS” A family member remembers.

A family member further added that before the kidnap, Otyaluk’s family had lost about 12 acres of land to Kiryandongo Sugar Limited.

“Company workers under the protection of soldiers brought a tractor and plowed acres of semi-mature maize, beans, sorghum, and sim-sim. We were only left with a small piece of land where our house sits and we are currently trapped in the middle of a sugarcane plantation” a family member added.

Since the trial period was announced, the prosecution failed to bring witnesses to pin Otyaluk for trespassing on his land. It was only on the 19th of July, 2022 during a court session, one Adamuru Peter, allegedly to be a company manager turned up as a company representative but not as a witness.

In her ruling last week, a magistrate at Kiryandongo Magistrate court discontinued the trial of Otyaluk and dismissed the case.

Otyaluk is one of the luckiest among hundreds of community land and environmental rights defenders currently under persecution to have his case dismissed. It’s an order of the day for the community land and environmental rights defenders to be kidnapped, arbitrarily arrested, and tortured on orders of investors for their work of mobilizing the communities to desist land grabs.

Kiryandongo Sugar Limited is among multinationals forcefully evicting over 35000 local and indigenous people off their land to give way to large-scale agribusinesses.

Kiryandongo Sugar Limited is one of the many companies owned by the Rai Group of Mauritius. The dynasty owns several other companies in DR Congo, Kenya and Malawi, and Uganda. A dynasty owns companies such as West Kenya Sugar (which owns Kabras Sugar), Timsales Limited, Menengai Oil Refineries, Rai Ply, and Webuye Panpaper.

In Uganda, the Rai Group of Mauritius owns Nile Ply limited, Kinyara Sugar Limited, and Masindi Sugar Limited among others. One of its directors is a shareholder of a British Virgin Islands company, listed in the Panama Papers database recently.

The same company has fraudulently gotten a license to replace part of Bungoma natural forest with a sugarcane plantation.

“Court has shown today that the company is maliciously arresting us to keep us in jails. To weaken our hearts, wasting our time and resources. They intentionally do this because we refused to surrender the land we have lived on for years. It is shaming that the government has failed to protect the rights of the poor people.” The defender noticed.

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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

Kawaala community land rights defenders will report for police bond for the fourth time on 1st August.

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By Witness Radio – Uganda team

Kampala, the three community land rights defenders from Kawaala Zone II charged with fraud are reporting back at the Old Kampala Regional Police Headquarters on Monday 1st of August.

It will be the fourth time for the defenders to report for the bond.

While appearing at the station on 18th July 2022, the two of the three defenders were re-arrested and subjected to another interrogation which lasted for one hour between 11 am to 12 pm local time.

They were quizzed by the head of the investigations at the Old Kampala Police headquarters, Deputy Assistant Inspector of Police (D/AIP) Patrick Domara. Land rights defenders Kabugo Michael and Kasozi Paul Ssengendo reported.  The third defender Busobolwa Adam did not turn up due to health-related issues.

On the third time, the two defenders who reported before police recorded additional statements on fraud charges that were preferred against them on July 11th, 2022.

Section 342 of the Penal Code states that forgery is the making of a false document with the intent to defraud or deceive. It carries three-year imprisonment on conviction.

The lawyers representing the defenders said their clients were questioned by the police about their land ownership in Kawaala and the documents proving ownership. Police said that the complainant accuses defenders of forging land sales agreements and occupying land illegally.

The defenders were summoned, arrested, and interrogated on the orders of the Deputy Resident City Commissioner (RCC) in charge of Rubaga Division Anderson Buroora who is accusing them of fraud.

The Resident City Commissioner is a representative of the president in the Capital City at the division level.

However, Witness Radio – Uganda believes that charges preferred against the community land rights defenders are a result of their continued mobilization of the local community of Kawaala to resist forced eviction, seek fair compensation, and resettlement before the Lubigi drainage channel is constructed.

“We challenge the RCC to bring evidence pinning the community land rights defenders on the alleged charges. We believe this is intimidation and continued efforts of fighting back to silence the work of the land rights defenders, wastage of their time and resources,” said one of the lawyers.

Since the first COVID outbreak in 2020, the victim defenders and others have been leading a pushback campaign to stop forced evictions by a multimillion dollars Kampala Institutional and Infrastructure Development Project (KIIDP-2) funded by World Bank. Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) is the implementer of the project.

The said project first impacted Kawaala Zone II around 2014, when a channel diversion was constructed. The current planned expansion will widen that channel and require forced evictions across an area at least 70 meters wide and 2.5 km long.

According to Witness Radio-Uganda lawyers, the community which is being forced off of its land without due process started living on that land in the 1940s and did not invite the project on their land.

The defenders will be reporting back on police bond at 10 am local time on the 1st of August 2022.

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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

Police re-arrest and interrogate Kawaala Community land rights defenders upon reporting back on bond.

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By Witness Radio Team

Kampala, Two of the three community land rights defenders from Kawaala Zone II, Kampala suburb have been re-arrested and re-interrogated on fraud charges at Old Kampala Regional Police Headquarters.

The duo had reported back to police on bond on fraud charges for the third time since they were first summoned on June, 29th 2022.

Kasozi Paul and Kabugo Micheal were subjected to another interrogation which lasted for one hour between 11 am to 12 pm local time. They were quizzed by the head of the investigations directorate at the Old Kampala Police headquarters, Deputy Assistant Inspector of Police (D/AIP) Patrick Domara. The third defender Busobolwa Adam could not make it due to health-related issues.

According to defenders’ lawyers, the duo recorded additional statements on fraud charges that were preferred against by police on July, 11th, 2022.

According to defenders’ lawyers, the victims were questioned by the police about their land ownership in Kawaala and the documents proving ownership. Police are saying that the complainant is accusing defenders of forging land sales agreements and occupying land illegally.

Section 342 of the Penal Code states that forgery is the making of a false document with the intent to defraud or deceive. It carries three-year imprisonment on conviction.

The defenders were summoned, arrested, and interrogated on the orders of the Deputy Resident City Commissioner (RCC) in charge of Rubaga Division Anderson Buroora who’s accusing them of fraud.

Resident City Commissioner is a representative of the president in the Capital City at the division level.

Witness Radio-Uganda says that the community which is being forced off its land without due process started living on that land in the 1940s and did not invite the project on their land.

Witness Radio – Uganda further believes that charges preferred against the community land rights defenders are a result of their continued mobilization of the local community of Kawaala to resist forced eviction, seek fair compensation and resettlement before the Lubigi drainage channel is constructed.

Since the first COVID outbreak in 2020, the victim defenders and others have been leading a pushback campaign to stop forced evictions by a multimillion dollars Kampala Institutional and Infrastructure Development Project (KIIDP-2) funded by World Bank. Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) is the implementer of the project.

This project first impacted Kawaala Zone II around 2014, when a channel diversion was constructed. The current planned expansion will widen that channel and require forced evictions across an area at least 70 meters wide and 2.5 km long.

The defenders were released on a police bond and required to report back on the 1st of August 2022 at 10 am local time.

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