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‘My flesh was burning’: Uganda accused of torture again

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KAMPALA — Ronald Ssegawa said Ugandan security agents pulled him off the streets in January last year, burned him and pulled out his fingernails. His crime: supporting the opposition.

The 22-year-old is one of hundreds of government critics and opposition supporters detained and tortured in the last three years, especially around the 2021 presidential vote, U.S-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

Its 62-page report was the latest in a barrage of such accusations against Uganda, which receives hefty funding and security assistance from Western nations who see President Yoweri Museveni as an ally against jihadists.

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In power since 1986, Museveni, 77, won the 2021 poll against pop star-turned-politician Bobi Wine. He has condemned torture but campaigners say action to stop it is scant.

Responding to the HRW report, military spokeperson Brigadier Felix Kulayigye and police spokesperson Fred Enanga both said torture was not tolerated with culprits prosecuted when caught.

They did not immediately provide data for that.

“Anybody who has indulged in torture is a fool because torture does not give results,” Kulayigye said.

However, HRW said Museveni’s government was condoning arbitrary arrests and abuse. Ex-detainees reported being raped, beaten, electrocuted or injected with unknown substances.

One woman, identified only as Rachel N, said she was abducted while pregnant in 2019 and suffered rape, beating and a miscarriage during months in custody.

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“I was tied up – they called it ‘Rambo’ – I was crucified” she said, according to the report. “I was in pain. I stayed for 12 hours. I was removed at 1 a.m. in the night. (My body) was swelling before I was taken inside.”

‘JUST KINDLY KILL ME’

Ssegawa told Reuters he was forced into a van, hooded, brought into a basement and shown a video where he urges people to vote for Wine. One captor heated a metal bar over a gas flame then pressed it into his stomach, he said.

“The pain was crushing, my flesh was burning away,” Ssegawa said, showing scars under his jacket.

“I told them, ‘just kindly kill me’.”

Ssegawa said the man then pulled out his nails with pliers. Another pressed a hot iron into his back and tried to use pliers to grab his tongue before a colleague stopped him, Ssegawa said.

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According to a petition filed at the Hague-based International Criminal Court last year by Wine’s party, Ssegawa’s unconscious body was dumped outside a morgue.

The petition said his fingers were necrotic – with dead cells – while he also had bruises, burns, a scarred abdomen and signs of electrocution. Mortuary attendants, discovering he was still breathing, took him to a doctor.

Ssegawa, a former machinist in a carpentry workshop, can no longer work with his damaged hands.

Police spokesperson Enanga said Ssegawa was beaten after attempting to snatch a phone. Yet he was never charged.

Underlining international alarm at Uganda’s rights record, the United States in December sanctioned former chief of military intelligence Major General Abel Kandiho for “horrific” abuse by his unit, saying he was sometimes personally involved.

Uganda said it was disappointed in the decision “without due process.” In February, Museveni gave him a senior police job.

Ugandan soldiers serve in a Western-backed peacekeeping force fighting Islamist insurgents in Somalia and have also gone into the Democratic Republic of Congo chasing Islamic State-aligned militants.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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