Uganda: arrest and alleged arbitrary detention of environmental rights defender Desire Nkurunziza (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Uganda and the company Hoima Sugar Ltd on 24 October 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. Regrettably, the Government did not reply within this timeframe. If a reply is received, it will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database.

Since the sending of the communication, Desire Nkurunziza has been summoned to the State House in Kampala to provide additional details about his case and was told that the government would look further into it. Community leaders also met with the Minister of the Presidency on behalf of M. Nkurunziza and were assured of the involvement of the Resident District Commissioner in human rights abuses affecting their community.

At the time of publication, no further step has been taken by the authorities, and Desire Nkurunziza has continued to report to the Court. His next appearance is on 31 January 2024.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication to Uganda Read the full communication to Hoima Sugar Ltd

BACKGROUND

Topic:  the arrest and alleged arbitrary detention of environmental rights defender Mr. Desire Nkurunziza.

Mr. Desire Nkurunziza is an environmental rights defender and the elected leader of Nyairongo village in the Kikuube district. As a member of the Save the Bugoma Forest Campaign (SBFC) community task force, Mr Nkurunziza has been advocating against the deforestation of the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve, which has been leased to Hoima Sugar Limited company, primarily for sugarcane cultivation. As part of this advocacy, Mr. Nkurunziza has highlighted the involvement of the local and central government authorities in the project and been critical of the decision by the Bunyoro Kitara Kingdom, South-West region of Uganda, to lease the land to the company.

Save the Bugoma Forest Campaign (SBFC) is a coalition of civil society organizations and grassroots groups respectively working on environmental issues, to advocate against the deforestation of Bugoma Central Forest Reserve. SBFC works to raise awareness about the detrimental impact of the sugarcane plantation to the biodiversity of the forest, as well as the local community and their access to livelihoods, who have also reportedly been subjected to intimidation and extortion by persons allegedly associated to Hoima Sugar Ltd.

ALLEGATIONS

Background

The Bugoma Forest Reserve is the second largest natural forest reserve in Uganda, covering more than 40,100 hectares (100,000 acres), and the largest remaining block of natural tropical forest along the Albertine rift valley. It was established as a Forest Reserve in 1932 and has been managed by the National Forestry Authority (NFA) since 2003.

In 2016, Mr. Solomon Iguru Gafabusa, Omukama of the ancient Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom, leased approximately 5,500 hectares of Bugoma Forest Reserve to Sugar Hoima Ltd. for 99 years, on the alleged claim that it was ancestral land and therefore not part of the protected forest area. The land was to be used for the Kyangwali Mixed Land Use project operated by Hoima Sugar Ltd. Alongside a sugarcane plantation, this project reportedly also included plans for an urban centre, an eco-tourism centre and a cultural site.

In August 2020, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) granted Hoima Sugar Ltd an Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) certificate to proceed with the Kyangwali Mixed Land Use project, and work began to clear the forest for sugarcane cultivation.

From 2019 – 2020, a number of cases were filed before the Civil Division of the High Court in response to the issuance of the ESIA to Hoima Sugar Ltd for the Kyangwali project. In its case, the Water and Environment Media Network Uganda (WEMNET-U) sought an injunction, and alleged that the granting of the ESIA without public consultation was illegal as it prevented interested parties from expressing their views and their right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Another case jointly filed by three NGOs – Greenwatch, National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) and Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) – similarly alleged that the ESIA had been issued without prior consultation or consideration for the views of local communities, and was not subjected to public scrutiny. The presiding judge threw out the case, reportedly claiming that it was based on unsubstantiated allegations to win public sympathy and had misled the court. The NFA filed a case against the Omukama of Bunyoro Kitara, Hoima Sugar Ltd and the Uganda Land Commission regarding the leasing of the land, and ultimately lost the case on appeal.

In September 2022, in response to an environment and social audit report submitted by Hoima Sugar Ltd for the Kyangwali project and subsequent investigations, NEMA found that the company had carried out deforestation of the natural, reserved forest areas. NEMA reported that as a result, the area of natural forest that was supposed to be protected had been severely degraded and ordered Hoima Sugar Ltd to immediately cease deforestation and undertake restoration of these areas, which the company agreed to.

In June 2023, in response to claims by the SBFC that Hoima Sugar Ltd were conducting destructive activities in the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve and the ESIA had been irregularly issued, a NEMA spokesperson is reported to have said that environmental activists sometimes “create unnecessary alarms” and accused activists of deliberately undermining manufacturing projects for the purposes of raising money from donors, and that they should learn to be “honest and patriotic” or risk the future of the country’s manufacturing sector.

As previously highlighted by Special Procedures mandate holders, environmental human rights defenders working for WEMNET-U were allegedly arbitrarily detained in connection with their efforts to raise awareness about the deforestation of the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve for the purposes of sugarcane cultivation.

Alleged arrest and arbitrary detention of Mr. Nkurunziza

On 16 July 2023, two cars pulled up outside Mr. Nkurunziza’s home in Nyairongo trading center. One of the cars allegedly belonged to a supervisor from Hoima Sugar Ltd, and the other to an associate of the Kikuube Resident District Commissioner, both men known to Mr. Nkurunziza. The two men allegedly informed Mr. Nkurunziza that two members of his village had been arrested in the forest, now a sugar cane plantation, and so he agreed to go with the men to assist his constituents.

Upon arrival at the sugar cane plantation, Mr. Nkurunziza was reportedly handed over to two armed Hoima Sugar Ltd personnel. The men allegedly beat Mr. Nkurunziza, before recording a video of him in which they accused him of illegally cutting down sugar cane. Following this, Mr. Nkurunziza was then taken to the Kikuube police station, reportedly in the same Hoima Sugar Ltd car. At the station he was allegedly arbitrarily arrested on the grounds of “incitement of violence” and “criminal trespass” under sections 51 and 302 of the Penal Code Act. Mr. Nkurunziza was held in Kikuube police station for two days, during which time his request for temporary release from custody was denied.

On 18 July 2023, Mr. Nkurunziza’s application for Court bail was denied, despite his fulfilment of the necessary requirements, and with reportedly no reason provided for the denial of his application. Mr. Nkurunziza was then remanded to Kiryatete prison. Whilst detained, Mr. Nkurunziza was granted access to his lawyer and members of his family.

On 24 July 2023, Mr. Nkurunziza appeared in the Chief Magistrates Court of Hoima and was released on bail, after paying 300,000 Ugandan shillings and satisfying the conditions for release. As part of these conditions, Mr. Nkurunziza was obligated to report back to the Court on 31 August 2023.

On 31 August 2023, Mr. Nkurunziza reported to the Court, during which the Chief Magistrate informed him that he would need to report back to the Court on 2 November 2023.

On a previous occasion a number of months before the alleged arbitrary detention in July, Hoima Sugar Ltd employees reportedly attempted to arrest Mr. Nkurunziza and other environmental activists whilst they were in Bugoma Central Forest Reserve with a cameraman, documenting the deforestation. Mr. Nkurunziza and those with him at the time reportedly ran away from the Hoima Sugar Ltd employees as they tried to arrest them.

CONCERNS

In the communication, we express our concern in response to the arrest and alleged arbitrary detention of Mr. Nkurunziza which appears to have occurred under circumstances in which he was reportedly misled and falsely accused of crimes in which he has no reported involvement. It would appear that Mr. Nkurunziza was accused of falsified allegations in connection with his legitimate work as an environmental human rights defender, primarily his opposition to the deforestation of the Bugoma Central Forest Reserve, which would amount to a violation of his right to defend environmental rights, including his human rights to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, his right to freedom of opinion and expression and his right to liberty and security of person.

If true, these allegations would suggest that there has been a degree of collusion between the local authorities and Hoima Sugar Ltd in the attack against and alleged arbitrary detention of Mr. Nkurunziza, which would be in violation of their respective human rights obligations and responsibilities. This is particularly concerning as it may deter environmental human rights defenders and their organizations from exercising their peaceful and legitimate human rights activities, in particular those that involve manufacturing companies, for fear of being subjected to similar retaliation.

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