A new wave of repression in Uganda has led to the abductions of dozens more opposition activists by security forces and at least one alleged death. Several hundred people are thought to have been detained without trial in the east African country in secret prisons where they are subjected to a brutal regime of mistreatment. The country has suffered a series of crackdowns aimed at stamping out dissent since campaigning began for presidential elections late last year.
The trigger for the most recent repression by security services appears to have been the swearing-in ceremony of Uganda’s veteran president, the 76-year-old Yoweri Museveni, in April.
Museveni won a sixth term in office in January in an election denounced as fraudulent by the opposition. Police and other unidentified security agencies moved to arrest and detain hundreds in the week before and after the inauguration.
Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – the singer turned politician known by his stage name, Bobi Wine – who is Uganda’s main opposition leader, told the Guardian a member of the inner security team was tortured to death by security operatives in the capital, Kampala.
The body of Daniel Apedel was found dumped at Mulago mortuary in Kampala bearing marks of torture on 22 May, Wine said. A police spokesperson said the 21-year-old had been beaten to death by a mob and that charges that he had been murdered after his arrest were baseless.
Apedel had told fellow activists he was under constant surveillance by security authorities and had received threats after refusing an offer to “work with the government”.
Witnesses heard Apedel pleading for mercy with someone he called “officer” shortly before he disappeared near his home in the Kireka district of Kampala on his way home from work. Three days later, a friend received an anonymous call saying Apedel’s body was at the morgue.
“He had been beaten, hit, his fingers were broken, his teeth removed … it was grave torture. It was a very disturbing sight to see,” said Wine.
Other detainees have had their joints or genitals beaten with wires, been burned with cigarettes or had fingernails torn out. Many have been members of Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform (NUP) party.
“We are constantly finding people killed or dumped by the roadside, and there are many more who are just rotting in prisons all across the country,” Wine said.
The NUP has listed more than 700 members and activists said to have been detained but said the true figure was likely to be higher.
Luke Owoyesigire, the deputy spokesperson for the Kampala Metropolitan police, said officers had found Apedel’s body at the scene of a reported incident of “mob justice” but were unable to find witnesses because the incident happened at night and so “most people were already at their homes” obeying a curfew.
He accused Wine of “playing sympathy politics”.
“The gentleman was killed by the mob and the police are investigating who was behind it. There is nothing like torture. [Wine] should stop making conclusions before investigating further on the circumstances of the death,” Owoyesigire said.
In the days before Museveni’s inauguration, police arrested more than 100 opposition activists on suspicion of planning to disrupt the ceremony. Some have been released, some produced in court and others remained in detention, officials said. Wine’s house has been surrounded by security forces for many months, and though he is allowed to leave, he is constantly followed.
Among this detained after the inauguration was Kalanzi Sharif, an NUP party worker who was taken from his home at 3am on 18 May by uniformed and non-uniformed security operatives after family members were forced to reveal his hiding place. Sharif’s whereabouts are unknown, though he is believed to be in police custody.
Four days later a group of about a dozen men and women were rounded up in Mbale, in eastern Uganda, apparently suspected of being opposition activists.
Owoyesigire said police operations are ongoing with further arrests expected, adding that detainees were offered a chance to “work with” security services.
“As soon as we have information about people who want to sabotage any activity, we … swing into action and make arrests. Those who aren’t directly involved in the activity, we let them go,” he said.
Last week, Uganda’s general military court martial, sitting in Kampala, granted bail to 17 of Wine’s supporters who were arrested in the central district of Kalangala in January. Many others have been kept in jail as lengthy court proceedings continue. Large numbers appear not to have been charged at all.
Many relatives complain they have no information about the fate of those taken. They say suspects have been denied access to medical treatment and lawyers, as well as contact with their family members.
The unmarked vans used by security forces – known as “drones” – are sometimes visible on footage from traffic or other surveillance cameras close to the site of abductions.
The Ugandan military has denied responsibility for any abuses and Museveni, in a national address in February, dismissed allegations that his forces had illegally detained civilians, saying the Ugandan army “is a disciplined force” and that his party “does not kill” its opponents.
However, the president admitted that security services were holding more than 200 detainees who, he said, had revealed a “criminal scheme” run by the opposition and instigated by “local parasites” and “foreign backers”.
“Too bad for the traitors,” Museveni said. “These poor [detained] youth gave us the whole scheme and they are now our friends.”
The mounting evidence of systematic human rights abuses in Uganda has drawn sanctions from the US and other international powers.
Museveni has been in power for 35 years and has long been perceived as a key ally of western powers in east Africa. The US and UK have given billions of dollars of development aid and security assistance to Uganda in recent years.
Earlier this month, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, announced that visa restrictions would be imposed on those responsible for recent abuses. Uganda has received more than a $1bn of US aid each year, as well as £150m of assistance from the UK.
Wine appealed to the international community to stop “sponsoring terror”.
“The people of Uganda are helpless before the people of the world. The international community must not turn a blind eye to what is happening in Uganda. We just ask for Gen Museveni to be held accountable for human rights, the rule of law and all the values that bring us all together,” he said.
Filings with the US Justice Department reveal that the Ugandan government has hired a UK-based public relations firm to improve its international image. The cost of such contracts often runs to several million dollars.
Brig Flavia Byekwaso, the spokesperson for the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, said that as long as people remained being caught on the other side of the law they would be arrested.
“We are not going to spare any arrests because [Wine] is going to talk [about it] … We can’t let misconduct happen.
“We shall still continue to arrest those who are not doing what they are supposed to do,” she said.