Kampala, Uganda – In December, Ugandan activist and writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija wrote a series of insulting tweets aimed at President Yoweri Museveni and his son.
This week he fled the country, scarred but rebellious after a month-long ordeal in state custody.
“They tortured me,” he told Al Jazeera by phone, saying he was in Malawi and hoped to travel to Germany for treatment.
“They used tongs to rip the flesh off my thighs. Every time I look at my body in the mirror, I shed tears.
Rukirabashaija says soldiers abducted him, forced him to dance and beat him unconscious after he wrote on Twitter that Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the president’s son and land forces commander, was ‘obese’ and ‘grumpy’ “.
He alleges that these abuses were committed at the headquarters of the Special Forces Command (SFC), an elite presidential guard that was led for many years by Kainerugaba himself and remains fiercely loyal to him. A spokesman for the unit denied his involvement.
If the torture was meant to silence Rukirabashaija – who won the PEN Pinter Award for Courageous International Writers in 2021 – it backfired.
After his release on January 26, he returned to social media and gave a heartbreaking TV interview, showing the scars that crisscrossed his back and thighs.
His case sparked a national debate.
More than 100 opposition MPs – some of whom have themselves been tortured in the past – have walked out of parliament to protest the torture and illegal detention of their supporters.
The United States and the European Union have issued statements condemning human rights abuses in Uganda.
While Rukirabashaija’s story has received the most attention, the story of torture under Museveni is long and deep.
During the tense months surrounding last year’s presidential election, Ugandan security forces arrested more than 1,000 people, many of whom were herded into unmarked minivans and driven to unknown locations.
Some of those who were released claimed to have been tortured, including being blindfolded, beaten with cables, having their genitals squeezed, being burned with boiling water, burned with irons, forced sitting in cold water, being injected with unknown substances and receiving electric shocks.
Although the details of these claims are difficult to verify, the evidence was often imprinted on the victims’ bodies: burns, scars, lacerations and missing fingernails.
Allegations of torture continue to emerge. On January 31, Samuel Masereka, an opposition activist, told reporters that he had been tortured by military intelligence agents after being detained the previous month.
“They caned me to the point that I lost consciousness,” he said, showing wounds on his swollen feet and scars on his stomach, back and legs.
The government later claimed he was linked to a rebel group.
The African Center for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, a non-governmental organization in Kampala, registers more than 1,000 torture survivors each year, most of them victims of beatings by the police or the army.
“Unfortunately, torture is still widespread in Uganda,” said Samuel Herbert Nsubuga, the NGO’s executive director. He noted that Uganda passed an anti-torture law in 2012 but “we haven’t yet had any notable officers who have been prosecuted and convicted”.
Meanwhile, Ofwono Opondo, a government spokesman, said “our safeguards are broadly effective and functional”, saying torture cases are “isolated” and “extremely low” in number.
“Looks like Kakwenza [Rukirabashaija]In this case, there are what we would call ‘dark forces’ in the security services who use underhanded methods and they will try to cover their tracks,” he added, without giving details.
In a televised address last August, Museveni said the torture was “unnecessary and reprehensible”, attributing its persistence to “indiscipline” and “traditional methods”.
“Why are you beating a prisoner,” he asked, holding up a photo of a scarred-back suspect. “Because you’re too lazy to interrogate him.”
He nevertheless insisted that “our human rights record is incomparable to any other in the world”.
But Mathias Mpuuga, the leader of the opposition in parliament, told Al Jazeera the president’s speech was a “frontage” that obscured a long history of torture in Uganda.
“Torture is the hallmark of the security agencies in this country,” he said. “It’s coming out now because of media proliferation, thanks to social media, and now the world can tell how it’s going.”
In 1989, three years after former rebel Museveni fought his way to power, an Amnesty International report noted a “significant improvement” in human rights over the previous regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Yet he also described Museveni’s soldiers beating prisoners with iron bars and tying them up “in the manner of kandooya”, their arms tied painfully behind their backs.
These methods were still being used in 2004, according to Human Rights Watch (PDF), along with electrocution, strangulation, solitary confinement, death threats and water torture from “Liverpool”, where the victims were forced to lie face up, mouth open, under a discharge. faucet.
Throughout his 36 years in power, Museveni has enjoyed strong financial and military support from the United States and other Western governments, despite their occasional criticisms of his human rights record.
That relationship may finally change as extremists in Uganda’s security forces tighten their grip and the crackdown becomes harder to ignore.
In December, the United States imposed financial sanctions on Abel Kandiho, Uganda’s military intelligence chief, accusing him and his officers of subjecting detainees to “horrific beatings and other acts egregious…including sexual abuse and electrocution, often resulting in serious long-term injury and even death.” Kandiho has since been moved to a senior position in the police.
Yet Museveni will need less US support once Uganda starts pumping oil, a long-awaited milestone expected in 2025. The World Bank projects the project will generate $1.5 billion a year for government coffers – more than the billion dollars that the country receives each year from the United States.
Patrick Pouyanné, chief executive of TotalEnergies, praised President Museveni’s “clear leadership” during a recent visit to Kampala, saying the French oil giant and its partners would invest $10 billion in the Ugandan project.
In January, TotalEnergies announced its withdrawal from Myanmar, citing human rights concerns, but it obviously believes Museveni is a man it can do business with.
Meanwhile, Rukirabashaija says he hopes to return to Uganda as soon as he receives the medical treatment he needs.
“Uganda is my country, it’s where I was born, so I have to come back,” he said. “I will wait for the dictator’s reaction.”