UPDF soldiers accused of extorting from abductees

Internal Affairs Minister Gen. Jeje Odongo

When the Electoral Commission (EC) chairman, Simon Byabakama declared Yoweri Museveni Tibuhaburwa winner of the January 14 elections, protests broke out in different parts of Masaka as dissatisfied opposition supporters denounced the results that handed the incumbent another five-year term as president.

The police and the military promptly swung into action, using teargas and live ammunition to break up the protests. In the end, four lives were lost and several others injured.

And the days that followed, security personnel re-activated raids in different locations of the newly created city and arrested dozens of supporters and activists of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP) party. The police in the area feigned ignorance of the operations but that did not stop relatives and friends of the abductees from making endless trips to Masaka police station, desperately hoping to establish the whereabouts of their loved ones.

It later emerged that the operations are carried out by Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) soldiers from the Masaka based Kasijjagirwa Armoured Brigade barracks. This was after some intelligence operatives saw an opportunity of making quick money from the desperate relatives of the abductees.

The operatives would negotiate a ransom ranging from Shs 300,000 to Shs 500,000 depending on how financially well the relatives appeared to be.

“We paid Shs 400,000 to buy the freedom of our relative. He was arrested from Kirimya [a suburb of Masaka town] three days after the elections. For two weeks, we had been looking for him until when a man in civilian clothes at Masaka police station approached us and promised to get him out of detention if we gave him money,” a relative who preferred to remain anonymous for his safety told The Witness.

“We mobilized for the money and after we had effected the payment, he was transferred from Kasijjagirwa to the police station and released on police bond,” he added.

Another lady in Kimaanya near Masaka town paid Shs 300,000 to secure her husband’s freedom. The man in question was dragged from his bathroom two weeks ago and taken into detention at the military barracks.

The lady, like many others, does not feel comfortable speaking about the ordeal fearing that the soldiers would again go for her husband.

SET THEM UP

Interviewed, army spokesperson, Brig. Flavia Byekwaso said that the relatives need to be empowered to set-up the extortionist soldiers for arrest.

“They should photograph those soldiers and report to the authorities because extortion is not allowed. Those people should be advised to set up the soldiers so that they can get arrested. What we want is any piece of evidence connecting any of our officers to the vice and you will see how they will be dealt with,” Byekwaso said.

Allegations of extortion first came to the fore in a tweet by Mathias Mpuuga, the NUP deputy president for Buganda also MP Nyendo-Mukungwe in response to last week’s statement to Parliament by the Internal Affairs minister, Gen. Jeje Odongo on the abductions.

Odongo had told Parliament that there were 44 cases of the alleged abductions and seven had been charged and released on bail, 11 had resurfaced after three days and a one Fred Kiwanuka who was abandoned in Busunju along Mityana road.

The minister said that the government was still investigating the whereabouts of some 31 people reported to be missing.

On Twitter, Mpuuga disputed the minister’s figures saying that the number was too small to cover the cases of abductions in Masaka.

“For his inaction, while in full knowledge of the abductors, the executioners and ransom takers, we want to remind the minister that he will be answerable and the buck stops with him,” Mpuuga tweeted.

TORTURE

Some of those that have so far been released from the Kasijjagirwa detention facility have accused the UPDF of torture and abuse of their rights.

 Jamir Mawanda, the Kimyanya B LC-I chairman was picked from his home on January 18 and bundled into a waiting van commonly known as Drone where he found other abductees. They were later driven to Kasijjagirwa barracks where they spent a week being tortured.

 According to Mawanda, he was accused of mobilizing opposition politicians and rioters to organise protests. 

His body is covered with bruises that he says resulted from severe whipping with cable wires by the soldiers who demanded that he reveals his entire network.

 Hakim Kigozi also spent a week in the detention cell. He had gone to follow up on colleagues – mechanics who had been picked from various motor garages along Naluddugavu street in Masaka town when the soldiers put him in.

Although he was not tortured, Kigozi claims to have suffered psychological distress at the hands of the military personnel who locked him inside a dark-cold room for six days. 

 Kigozi is one of the Masaka voters that switched allegiance to support opposition candidates as the polling day drew closer. He however says that he remained a supporter of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), and blames the armoured brigade’s intelligence officer, Maj. Fred Kasimoni Mushambo for acting on false intelligence which has led to the indiscriminate arrest of people. 

 But Maj. Flavia Terimulungi Mulindwa, the spokesperson of the armoured brigade Kasijjagirwa in Masaka, has refuted the torture allegations.

She said their officers conducted joint intelligence-led operations that are intended to ensure peace and stability in the area after obtaining reports indicating that some groups of people were plotting to burn down several public installations.

Additional reporting by URN

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