Uganda Admits Army Rights Abuses

Despite record far better than past regimes, Kampala has not yet effectively curbed military

MOST countries accused of human rights abuses deny them. Uganda admits that elements of its Army have tortured and killed prisoners in the fight against rebels. Ugandan and international human rights critics welcome this openness, but say it will take more than admissions to clean up the country's record.

The human rights group Amnesty International reported in March that, after improvements last year, human rights abuse in Uganda appears to be on the rise:

In northern areas, where the government is fighting rebels, alleged political opponents are detained without charge ``sometimes for months on end.''

``Prisoners are sometimes tortured and killed,'' often with little follow-up investigation.

In the capital, Kampala, ``intelligence agencies are becoming increasingly lawless in their arbitrary detention and torture of prisoners.''

Arrests of some journalists in 1987 and 1988 who had written articles critical of the government indicate ``a disconcerting trend toward intolerance of critical comment, especially of the Army ...''

At the same time, however, Amnesty says that ``the Army is more subject to the law now than at any time in the last 20 years.'' The report says there have been imprisonments, and even executions, of some soldiers found guilty of human rights abuses.

The military today is ``humane,'' compared to the ``wild beasts'' of the past, says one Ugandan human rights analyst who still asked to remain anonymous.

Estimates of the number of civilians slaughtered under the Ugandan regimes of Idi Amin and Milton Obote between 1966 and 1985 range upward from 800,000.

Uganda accepts the Amnesty report. President Yoweri Museveni even met with the top Amnesty officials to discuss the findings.

Uganda's presidentially appointed inspector-general of government, Augustine Ruzindana, who is charged with investigating current cases of government abuse and corruption, calls the Amnesty document ``a good report; objective,'' adding that ``a lot of it has been investigated.''

He also admits that Uganda is illegally holding up to 3,000 detainees, described by Amnesty as suspected rebels or rebel supporters. The President has ordered some 600 who have been cleared to be released soon.

``We are honest,'' Mr. Ruzindana said in a recent Monitor interview. ``There is no need to cover up things which are known by thousands. And in any case, we know these things have been happening for a long time. And we know that in a society you can not switch on and off human behavior.''

``We appreciate where shortcomings exist and someone points them out,'' he said.

Yet when asked for examples of military abuses his office has uncovered since it was established in 1986, he provided no details.

Amnesty reports that when he met with its staff in 1988, Ruzindana ``had not yet carried out a single investigation of an alleged extrajudicial execution by the NRA, Uganda's National Resistance Army,'' despite earlier presentation by Amnesty of detailed allegations of such abuse.

Ruzindana says his work is hampered by a small staff. He said he may soon get a military staff person to help investigate complaints in areas of conflict with the rebels, where most allegations of human rights abuses surface.

Ugandan critics who ask not to be identified say the office has been ineffective in spotting military abuse. Similarly, they and several diplomats here see few results from a government commission set up to review human rights abuses under past regimes.

Opinions are mixed on the work of the nongovernmental Ugandan Human Rights Activists group. One diplomat said its quarterly reports pinpoint some abuses. But a Ugandan familiar with the group's work says ``they're scared'' because of the detention for a year of the group's former head, who was picked up after making strongly critical remarks about the human rights record of the Museveni government.

Sources agree, however, that the existence of both these groups and the inspector-general's office is helping make human rights a more prominent issue in Uganda.

Meanwhile, allegations of Army abuses continue. For example, according to Ugandan sources - who insisted on anonymity - the Army entered the village of Tididiek in eastern Uganda in late February or early March and shot from 65 to 100 civilians, apparently as alleged rebels or rebel supporters. Their bodies were taken by military truck to a river, weighted with stones, and dumped. It was not possible to verify these alleged abuses.

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