Lawyers acting for the victims of a wave of abductions and torture by security forces in Uganda have named senior military commanders, including the president’s son, in a complaint to the international criminal court.
Prosecutors at the ICC are already reviewing an earlier submission from the opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi, the former reggae singer known as Bobi Wine, describing widespread human rights abuses before presidential polls held in January.
President Yoweri Museveni claimed victory in the vote, which was marred by allegations of fraud and the death of at least 50 people during protests. Most were shot by security forces.
Kyagulanyi’s National Unity Platform party has listed more than 600 members and activists said to have been detained. NUP officials believe the true figure is likely to be higher
It has been difficult to identify the masked men or vehicles used in the abductions as well as torturers and guards in prison. However, lawyers, campaigners and victims blame the Special Forces Command, an elite military unit, for many of the abuses. The new complaint, also filed on behalf of Kyagulanyi, will be submitted to the ICC this week.
The SFC is commanded by Museveni’s son 47-year-old son Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who is named in the complaint along with several senior officers.
“In Uganda today, the civil function is subverted in favour of the military that patrols all towns and cities,” the complaint alleges. “The military maintains power of arrest over civilians who are held on vague and indeterminate charges.”
Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Yoweri Musevni’s son and commander of the SFC.
Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Yoweri Musevni’s son and commander of the SFC. Photograph: Peter Busomoke/AFP/Getty Images
The complaint describes hundreds of abductions. Some detainees have had their joints or genitals beaten with wires, have been burned with cigarettes or had fingernails torn out. At least one detainee has been confirmed as having died in custody, although the death toll is thought to be much higher. Many of those abducted have suffered significant and potentially lasting physical and psychological harm.
Ugandan military spokespeople have repeatedly denied responsibility for any abuses, and Museveni in a national address in February dismissed allegations that his forces had illegally detained civilians, saying the army was “a disciplined force” and that his party “does not kill” its opponents.
Maj Jimmy Omara, a spokesperson for the SFC unit, told the Guardian the allegations against the unit and its commanders were baseless. “There are no abductions. These are normal arrests. Operations here are managed and controlled by the police force so I don’t see where the SFC would be involved,” he said.
However, in a letter dated 23 February that was sent to the Monitor newspaper, Museveni stated that the SFC had held more than 50 civilians without charge since November. Those held “have been with SFC, helping them to expose the whole criminal scheme of elements of the opposition plus their local parasite and foreign backers,” Museveni said.
Yoweri Museveni is one of Africa’s most enduring rulers. The 76-year-old former bush fighter has defied calls for his retirement, saying his six successive elections victories demonstrate his continuing popularity in Uganda.
Once seen as a reformer who would put right the wrongs of brutal former leaders such as Idi Amin and Milton Obote, now Museveni is accused of many of the same abuses as his predecessors.
Born in 1944 into a family of cattle keepers in Ankole, western Uganda, Museveni came to power in 1986, and has long been seen as a staunch ally of western powers and a force for stability in a volatile region.
During the 1990s, Museveni was one of a new generation of African leaders seen as committed to reform. Uganda’s economy grew fast, school enrolment increased and the country’s effective campaign against HIV won praise.
But Museveni’s decision to involve Uganda in regional wars, successive crackdowns on domestic dissent and laws targeting the LGBT community – a bid to drum up support from evangelical Christians – tarnished his image.
By 2018, despite rising discontent, Uganda’s parliament amended the constitution to allow candidates over 75 years old to run, paving the way for Museveni to continue his rule indefinitely.
Though Museveni retains significant support particularly in rural areas, he faces a strong challenge from Robert Kyagulanyi, a singer turned politician, who is half Museveni’s age, and whose criticism of corruption and bad governance resonated with young people and the urban poor.
Kyagulanyi, better known by his stage name Bobi Wine, won 38% of votes in January’s election despite a campaign of intimidation that included beatings, abductions of his supporters and raids on his party offices