Take Serious, Not Symbolic, Steps to Reform Uganda Police

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[East Africa]

Police commander Martin Okoth-Ochola. Photo: Facebook

Since taking office in March, Uganda’s new police leadership has begun to address the many allegations of torture by police. But its actions have yet to go far enough. Unless the police, the directorate of public prosecutions and the judiciary take more systematic actions, defendants currently detained on the basis of confessions coerced under torture could proceed through the courts and allegations of mistreatment may resurface. That would be a horrific miscarriage of justice.

The new Inspector General of Police, Martin Okoth-Ochola, has formally reinstated Nalufenya detention facility to its previous status as a regular police station. Nalufenya was notorious as a location from which detainees often came to court bearing open wounds from torture. Many of its former detainees have detailed in the press their horrendous and heinous treatment at the facility in the hands of both the police and other security outfits. Okoth-Ochola also formally disbanded the dreaded Flying Squad, a police unit also well-known for abusing suspects, and moved the commander to another post. But there has been no indication of interest in an open and transparent investigation of the numerous allegations of torture by the Flying Squad or at Nalufenya.

Much more remains to be done. Changing Nalufenya’s status without dealing with the structural and systemic abuses that occurred there amounts to little more than a superficial effort to improve the image of the police, similar to past efforts. It gives a false sense of commitment to resolving the deep institutional malaise under which Uganda’s police have operated and is a facile, public relations move.

And the Flying Squad was just the most recent of a string of police units with abusive and corrupt reputations, and followed the previously disbanded units Operation Wembley, Violent Crimes Crack Unit and Rapid Response Unit. Those units were all disbanded after public outcry over their horrific treatment of defendants and at times, of the general public. Yet the Flying Squad maintained their vicious outlook, practices, facilities and in large part, personnel.

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Maria Burnett, Director
East Africa and the Horn

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