Police Rapid Response Unit (RRU) under fire from an international human rights group for frequent torture, arbitrary arrest, extortion and killing of suspects. The group, Human Rights Watch, calls for government to hold the RRU accountable for its activities.
The report released today calls on the Ugandan government to urgently open an independent investigation into the unit's conduct and activities. It says the Rapid Response Unit should be held accountable for human rights violations.
The Rapid Response Unit is the police force special crime crack team. It is the grandchild of an army-headed unit called Operation Wembley that was established by President Yoweri Museveni in 2002 to stop gun crime in urban centers. Later it became the Violent Crime Crack Unit and in 2007 it was formally taken under police command and renamed the Rapid Response Unit.
Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch says changing the unit's name, leadership, and command makes no difference to the people the unit tortures, detains, or in some cases kills. He says the authorities and the donors who fund the police need to get serious about holding abusive officers of this unit accountable.
The Human Rights Watch investigation spanned the period from November 2009 to January 2011 and included over 100 interviews with people arrested and formerly detained by the unit, widely known as RRU.
In its 59-page report, Human Rights Watch documents the unit's illegal methods of investigation and serious violations of the rights of the people it arrests and detains.
One former detainee of the unit told Human Rights Watch about his arrest and interrogation for allegedly having a gun. He said he was handcuffed and beaten with a broken soda bottle on the ankles, face, ears and elbows.
The man, whose identity is protected, said when he was taken to the RRU headquarters in Kirekka, Kampala, about 70,000 shillings in his possession was stolen. He claims that the policemen searched his home and on finding no gun, started to torture him again.
According to Human Rights Watch, the theft of money during investigations is a common complaint by former detainees. Some were told they would be released if family members would bring cash to the officers. In several instances, victims of robberies said money had been recovered during investigations, but then the officers kept part or all of the money.
The report says the unit's mandate is to investigate "violent crime," but officers and affiliated personnel have made arrests for a wide range of alleged crimes, from petty offenses to terrorism. The unit's personnel typically operate in unmarked cars, wear civilian clothing with no identifying insignia, and carry a variety of guns, from pistols to larger assault rifles. The unit's members have on some occasions transported suspects in the trunks of unmarked cars.
Human Rights Watch also found that the unit routinely uses torture to extract confessions. Sixty of 77 interviewees who had been arrested by RRU told Human Rights Watch that they had been severely beaten at some point during their detention and interrogations.
In 2010, at least two people died of injuries from beatings during interrogations, and four people were shot and killed in the course of an arrest. Several former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they had witnessed co-detainees die from beatings during interrogations, but did not know the names of the individuals.
There are no precise figures about how many people may have died in RRU custody or as a result of abuses by the unit. But Human Rights Watch research documented at least six extrajudicial killings in 2010.
RRU officers shot and killed four people in Kyengera in January last year. In May, Henry Bakasamba died while officers were questioning him about a robbery of a foreign exchange bureau. In August, RRU officers severely beat Frank Ssekanjako, a 22-year-old robbery suspect, and he died shortly thereafter.
In November 2010, the inspector general of police appointed Joel Aguma to be the new RRU commander.
Aguma told Human Rights Watch that he had instituted numerous changes, including establishing a complaints desk and a toll-free phone line for the public to communicate with the unit. He said he is open to criticism and hoped to work closely with civil society to address complaints.