Uganda: Arrest & intimidation of Human Rights Defenders working on oil and gas issues (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 on 24 January 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, during which time the Government was expected to respond. The Government did not respond during this period, and any reply, if sent, will be available on the UN communications database.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication

CONTEXT

Topic: criminalization and acts of intimidation against non-governmental organizations working on oil and gas issues, and the arrest of Mr. Joss Kaheero Mugisa and Mr. Robert Birimuye, human rights defenders working in the same field.

Mr Joss Kaheero Mugisa is the chairperson of Oil and Gas Human Rights Defenders Association (OGHRA), a community-based organisation, paralegal for the Ugandan Law Society and observer for AFIEGO (Africa Institute for Energy Governance) in the district of Buliisa in Uganda. AFIEGO undertakes public policy research and advocacy to influence energy policies to benefit the poor and vulnerable.

Mr. Robert Birimuye is the leader of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) Project Affected People (PAP). They are also part of the anti-TOTAL movement in Uganda, in which connection Special Procedures mandate holders send a communication to your Excellency’s Government on 6 July 2021 (UGA 3/2021) to which we have not received a response yet.

The civil society organisation AFIEGO was previously the subject of a communication sent by Special Procedures mandates holders the Ugandan Government on 24 September 2021 (see UGA 4/2021). We regret that to date the Government has yet to provide a response to that letter.

ALLEGATIONS

On 7 October 2021, the Hoima field officer of AFIEGO was summoned to the Hoima police station and warned against reopening the AFIEGO field office in Buliisa. On the same day, the director of the Buliisa police went to the Buliisa local office of AFIEGO and took photos of the premises. The office also serves as headquarters of two other NGOs.

On 8 October 2021, and following the suspension of AFIEGO by the NGO Bureau, subject to the letter above, around 20 police officers raided the office of the three organisations in Buliisa, requiring their members to close down and leave the premises within two hours. As a result of the raid, Mr. Maxwell Atuhura, the head of AFIEGO’s Buliisa office, removed the computers and most of the equipment from the premises and all the members left the office.

On 14 October 2021, at 10:00 am Mr. Mugisa was arrested under accusations of threats of violence and verbal abuse within a family context and held in custody at the police station of Buliisa for 24 hours. He was released on bond, before being rearrested on 18 October 2021, and brought before a judge on 20 October 2021, who remanded him in custody until 10 November 2021. He was charged with two counts of “threatening violence” against two women of his family and one count of “threatening to destroy their house”. Mr. Mugisa denies these accusations as does another witness.

The police have allegedly told him that he was arrested because he disobeyed police orders by not removing the sign post from AFIEGO’s office after it was requested he do so. Mr. Mugisa had already been under threat for several weeks prior to his arrest, due of his field work in the oil region, whilst other members of AFIEGO have also been threatened with arrest.

On 22 October 2021, Mr. Birimuye, a leader of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) Project Affected People (PAP) leader from Kyotera district, Massaka region, was arrested by the Kyotera district police commander during a meeting of PAPs organised by a Member of Parliament for Kyotera district, in Luseese Village, Nabigasa Sub-county, Kyotera District.

He was accused of disturbing the EACOP project by challenging the assessments and compensations he considers unfair, working with an unregistered organisation in the district and trying to sabotage the government project. Subsequently, he was detained at the Kyotera City Police Station.

Mr. Birimuye was released on bond a few hours later as investigations against him on charges of “inciting violence, sabotage of government programmes and unlawful assembly” are ongoing. Later in the day of 22 October 2021, six AFIEGO members were arrested by the police. The six human rights defenders were detained at the Kiira police station and the charges against them were not made known to them. They were released on 25 October 2021. The police has not pressed charges yet.

CONCERNS

In the communication we expressed our concerns regarding the arrests, acts of intimidation and judicial harassment against human rights defenders and NGOs working in the oil and gas sector in Uganda, which appear to be directly related to their legitimate human rights activities. These acts seem to be part of a broader pattern of intimidation and harassment of civil society organisations and groups in Uganda who have raised human rights concerns arising from oil and gas project.

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