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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

………Special Report; Abridged testimony……. Militarized land administration is promoting violence against poor landowners; an experience of one of the tortured defenders.

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From extreme right, Bakaleke Joseph the former Kiryandongo Police commander together with other police officers during a visit on a contested land.

By witnessradio.org Team

A quiet and peaceful mood defines what used to be a busy community of smallholder farmers whose entire lifestyle depended on farming fields. During the rainy season, the entire family coupled with young, youths and the old would spend the entire time in the garden and they would return when it turns dark. Tea, lunch, and supper meals would be cooked and taken from there as a family targets to plant more acre of land using ordinary farm tools (hand-hoes) for a big harvest.

What used to be grazing fields for animals, gardens of cassava, sweet potatoes, maize, bananas, or burial grounds, among others, are now sugar plantation farms and some shrubs that have almost closed what used to be the feeder roads.

The village is called Kikungulu, Kitwara Sub-County, and 40 km deep in Kiryandongo district, which is bordered by Nwoya District to the north side, Oyam District to the northeast, Apac District to the eastern side, and Masindi District to the south and western side.

With almost all roads closed and the available ones being bushy, thorny, and impassable, it is easier for one to assume no families live in the village.

Deep down in the village is the home of Atyaluk David Richard a land rights defender trapped in the middle of a large sugarcane plantation owned by a multinational company, Kiryandongo sugar limited.

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. They own companies such as West Kenya Sugar (which owns Kabras Sugar), Timsales Limited, Menengai Oil Refineries, RaiPly, and Webuye Panpaper.

In Uganda, the Rai Group of Mauritius owns Nile Ply limited, Kinyara Sugar Limited, and Masindi Sugar Limited among others.

Atyaluk’s problems stem from 2017 when he “refused” to surrender his land to the company. His actions attracted severe torment from the company and its agents to give way to large-scale sugarcane projects.

Then came a role of mobilizing and empowering his community to resist land grabs by the same multinational company. The latter brought real-life threats including torture and abductions that almost led to death. A selfless defender has faced more than 4 times of arbitrary arrests and torture for his work.

Before the violent eviction in 2017, Atyaluk and over 35000 villagers lived and cultivated peacefully on the land their parents and relatives occupied since the 1930s.

Out of his 50 acres of land he owned, Atyaluk now farms on less than an acre. The rest were forcefully grabbed by the sugar company at a gunpoint.

He is currently leading some families that have resisted surrendering their land also have withstood all the violent actions of the company being guarded by soldiers from the 4th Division of the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF).

UPDF is a national army whose constitutional obligations to the people living in Uganda is to; Article 209 (a) of the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda mentions four functions of UPDF namely;

(a) to preserve and defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uganda;
(b) to cooperate with the civilian authority in emergency situations and in cases of natural disasters;
(c) to foster harmony and understanding between the defense forces and civilians; and

(d) to engage in productive activities for the development of Uganda.

However, the narrative that the force depicts is different. One of the most recent violent attacks on the defender was on 25 March 2020 when company workers, accompanied by four soldiers of the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), entered his property with a tractor and plowed his maize fields. When he tried to stop the tractor from destroying his crops, the soldiers grabbed him, and was severely assaulted

According to Atyaluk, he was alerted by his neighbor that his maize farm was being destroyed, he rushed to talk to them but instead he was arbitrary arrested and taken to an unknown detention center and tortured.

He claims he was able to identify one of the soldiers as Captain Omoro, who was one of the commandants at the military detach where he was held incommunicado and tortured…” When they took me inside, Captain Omoro came and shouted at me, said they are trained to kill, that whoever disturbs them he/she will not like the repercussions, he vowed to torture me until I leave the land,” Said Atyaluk

Omoro’s statements were also reechoed by a 52-year-old and a mother of 11, Janet Akiru. She said similar threats and intimidatory statements led her and the family to painfully leaving their land as precaution measures.

According to Akiru, she relocated to her relatives in Bugiri District, the Eastern part of Uganda.

“When soldiers kidnapped Atyaluk, my husband abandoned me and my family. All our gardens got destroyed and houses demolished and I couldn’t take care of my family. These are the people who could come to our home, without explanation, beat up everyone. Because of fear of our dear lives, we had to abandon the invaluable heritage,” Said Akiru.

In a description of the Ndoi military detach where Atyaluk was illegally kept, the place is fenced with barbed wires and polls. It has many small houses and a slightly bigger house where villagers are illegally detained and tortured. According to Atyaluk, soldiers can only stop torturing upon seeing blood fussing from one’s body, which soldiers call a lesson to villagers that can be shared with others.

For Atyaluk, after being tortured, he was taken to Kiryandongo district Central Police Station, without any treatment and he was detained for seven days before being charged with criminal trespass and released on police bond.

According to Atyaluk’s medical reports from Kiryandongo hospital, the defender sustained severe injuries on one of his legs,  libs, and back.

While on police bond, early this year, Atyaluk was attacked again, because he was constructing a house on his small piece of land left for him by the company.

He reports that with no explanations he was kidnapped from his home at around 8:00 am local time on 12th March 2021.

“We saw three armed soldiers in full army uniform coming to our home. As soon as they got into our compound, they announced that we’re taking him. We asked them who, they replied that Atyaluk. He was immediately arrested and ordered to sit down. A few minutes, later, Atyaluk was ordered to get up and walk. The soldiers walked with him up to Ndoi village, where he was ordered to enter into a car labeled with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) banners, car registration No. UAW 796Z” Said Olupot James, a brother to Atyaluk.

According to Olupot, upon Atyaluk’s abduction, he followed the car until it was seen entering a military detach at Kamusenene village where he was severely beaten and flogged by Uganda People Defense Forces soldiers.

“While in there I was badly beaten before police intervention. A police pick-up double cabin car registration number UP 7684 with 8 police officers commanded by the Kiryandongo district police commander, SP Odonga Tonny came and picked me from the military camp at 3:00 pm local time on the day of kidnap. I was later taken to the Kiryandongo Central Police Station,” Said Atyaluk.

Atyaluk,  41, and breadwinner of 8 children, was illegally detained at Kiryandongo for five (5) days before he was charged with setting fire to the crops and released on bond.

In this and countless other cases, soldiers resorted to arbitrary arrest, and torture as methods to intimidate those who amplify voices for the communities in resistance to violent land grabs.

What hurts the defender and other residents is that attempts to open up charges against the multinational company workers, guards, and individual security officers for their violent acts are curtailed.

“We are not accepted to register complaints of locals against the multinational companies, why, these are orders from above,” Said a police officer at Deyle police post who preferred anonymity.

However the Kiryandongo district police commander SP Odonga Tonny, said no actions of violence against the defenders and the project-affected persons have been reported.

“Some residents are arrested for being violent but have not been tortured. If there allegations of abductions and torture, I and my team will investigate the matter,” he added.

However, he denied allegations of providing security to Kiryandongo Sugar Limited and other multinationals to arbitrary arrest and harm defenders.

But the Kiryandongo sugar limited maintains it never evicted any person on the land and denies the allegations of torture, and arbitrary arrests against the locals in the area where they are operating. They rather claim that they worked with community leaders to develop a humanitarian compensation and resettlement plan for all of the illegal occupants.

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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

The abducted community land rights defender is found and released on a police bond.

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By Witness Radio Team.

A Kawaala Zone II community land rights defender who was waylaid and arrested by eight (8) armed policemen has been found at Old Kampala regional police headquarters and released without a charge.

On 31st/10/2022, armed Policemen arrested Kabugo Michael who was due to set off for a community meeting between the residents, Witness Radio – Uganda, and the Accountability Counsel intended to discuss issues surrounding their land interests targeted by the infrastructural project.

Kabugo is a community land rights defender in Kawaala Zone II Rubaga division, Kampala district. He is one of the community land rights defenders facing reprisals for defending the community’s land targeted by Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) for a drainage channel construction and expansion project funded by the World Bank.

After a long day search for the abducted community defender, Witness Radio lawyers found him held at the Old Kampala regional police headquarters.

Mrs. Adongo Sarah, one of the victim’s lawyers said the police reviewed an old file where the victim was accused of ‘fraud’ and re-interviewed him.

“He was able to make an additional statement, and his police bond and that of his other colleagues accused alongside with on the old file was extended to Friday 4th November this year.” She added.

She further said Michael’s arrest was arbitrary, adding that even the Officer in Charge of the case at Old Kampala Regional Criminal Investigations Department could not give reasons.

The victim’s lawyers believe these increased actions of arrests, kidnaps, and detentions of Kawaala community land rights defenders are reprisals for their work of opposing

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Defending Land And Environmental Rights

Breaking: A Kawaala community land rights defender kidnapped and taken to unknown destinations, others on the run.

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By Witness Radio-Uganda.

Armed Policemen have this morning waylaid and arrested a community land rights defender in Kawaala zone II Rubaga division, Kampala district, Witness Radio-Uganda has learned.

Mr. Kabugo Micheal is a renowned community land rights defender who advocates for fair compensation of the community land on an ongoing project of Lubigi drainage channel expansion funded by the World Bank and implemented by the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA).

According to eyewitnesses, the defender was at Mr. Kasozi’s home (one of the community defenders) before setting off for a community meeting between the residents, Witness Radio – Uganda, and Accountability Counsel. The meeting was to discuss issues surrounding their land interests targeted by the infrastructural project.

“As he was sitting on a Boda (motorcycle taxi driven in Uganda and other East African States), police rounded him up before his arrest. We saw him being manhandled. They (police) forced him onto one of the police bodas before he was taken to unknown destinations.” Said an eyewitness.

Another eyewitness further explained that he was arbitrarily arrested by eight (8) armed policemen on a police patrol

Mr. Kasozi Paul Ssengendo who also witnessed the arbitrary arrest of Michael said police are targeting them with arrests because of their work to resist forced eviction by Kampala Capital City Authority.

“I am currently on the run. I was a target of police but I managed to escape.” The defender told Witness Radio.

In June this year, Mr kabugo and 5 others were arrested and falsely charged with forgery, a charge they said is retaliation for their work in fighting for their land rights.

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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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