Taxation, Tribulation, and Torture: The Price of Critical Speech in Uganda

On December 28, 2021, satirical writer and government critic, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was beaten by Ugandan military officers and arrested for violation of the Computer Misuse Act.[1] His crime was criticizing the physical weight of Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, on Twitter.[2] Rukirabasaija was held for fourteen days without access to family or attorneys. When he was released, Rukirabasaija revealed he was tortured while in detention.[3] News outlets reported that military officers beat him, hit him with gun butts, forced him to dance to music for hours, tore flesh from his body with pliers, and injected him with unknown substances.[4] Torture is one of several punishments that Ugandan officials have utilized in the past several years to deter critical speech of the government.[5] Additionally, several pieces of legislation act as a legal path to restrict government criticism by regulating the use of the internet and social media.[6] Together, the use of illegal torture and legal deterrence has created a dangerous space for critics and writers, like Rukirabashaija.

This article will explain the history of free speech in Uganda, the adoption of internet restriction laws and their application, and the international response to Uganda’s use of torture in enforcing these laws.

History of the Museveni Administration and Free Speech

Yoweri Museveni gained popularity in the 1970s due to his notorious role in staging a coup d’etat against Idi Amin.[7] Several other leaders controlled Uganda between 1979 and 1985 until Museveni was elected as President of Uganda in 1986.[8] Since 1986, Museveni has been reelected in 2001, 2006, 2011, 2016, and more recently, in 2021.[9] The Museveni Administration has been praised and criticized over the past several decades.[10] Under this administration, Uganda’s economy grew steadily and saw annual average growth of over five percent.[11] Additionally, primary school education enrollment increased and HIV levels dropped because of an impressive anti-Aids campaign spearheaded by the President.[12] However, opposition parties and organizations have raised awareness around illegal actions taken by the Museveni Administration, including election fraud and corruption.[13]

In late 2010, pro-democratic protests called the “Arab Spring” in North Africa and the Middle East led to a new strategy for governments to suppress the spread of critical speech.[14] The Arab Spring began in Tunisia when a young man set himself on fire in protest of police harassment.[15] Within one month, the President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country after his 23-year reign as President.[16] Ben Ali was the first leader of an Arab nation to be pushed out of power by protests.[17]

Social media heavily contributed to the spread of protests to several other North African and Middle Eastern countries.[18] In response to the protests and the demand for regime change, many African states passed legislation to restrict access to social media and what content users could post.[19] For example, Algeria, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe have restricted access to the internet during elections.[20] In East Africa, governments enacted taxation and administrative fees on social media to restrict usage.[21]

In 2010, Uganda passed The Computer Misuse Act (“the Act”).[22] The Act was meant to ensure the safety and security of electronic transactions, prevent unlawful access, abuse or misuse of information systems, and secure the conduct of electronic transactions in a secure environment.[23] Then, Uganda amended the Excise Duty Act of 2014 to include a tax on the use of “over the top” (“OTT”) mobile apps and similar services which impacted more than sixty websites and apps, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp.[24] In 2021, the government revoked the tax and replaced it with a twelve percent levy that directly applies to the price of internet data.[25] The liberal use of the Act to enforce content restrictions and continued taxation on internet use pair together to heavily curb governmental criticism online. However, Uganda has starkly moved from legal restrictions on the internet to illegally punishing critics by torture.

Uganda and The Use of Torture

Allegations of government-backed torture have slowly penetrated the internet in the recent year following President Museveni’s controversial win in the 2021 election.[26] Ronald Ssegawa, a citizen of Uganda, told Reuters that he was tortured for supporting Museveni’s opposition in the 2021 election.[27] Ssegawa reported that military officials pressed his stomach against metal bars heated over a gas flame and his nails were pulled out by pliers.[28] The officials dumped Ssegawa off at a morgue, though still alive, and never charged him with a crime.[29] Organizations like Human Rights Watch suspect that there are over one hundred Ugandan citizens that share similar experiences as Ssegawa—or much worse.[30] Allegations of torture due to governmental criticism still occur a year after the election occurred and Museveni was re-elected.[31]

The torture of satirical writer Rukirabashaija revealed that, coupled with acts of torture, the government is also prosecuting government criticism under the Act.[32] In Rukirabashaija’s case, the government accused him of offensive communication and threatened Rukirabashaija with prison before he decided to flee Uganda.[33] Sources claim that Uganda officials “repeatedly” use the Act to censor online expression against government officials.[34] The punishment for offensive communication is a fine or up to one year in prison.[35]

The International Response to Allegations of Torture in Uganda

International humanitarian organizations continuously recognize the importance of preventing torture and the importance of holding countries accountable when allegations of torture arise.[36] The International Criminal Court (“ICC”) is one organization that is able to hold actors within States Parties’ jurisdictions accountable for acts of torture under the broad category of crimes against humanity.[37] Crimes against humanity are defined as inhumane acts that willfully cause great suffering or serious injury to civilians.[38] These acts are also widespread or systematic attacks directed against civilians.[39]

In 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Ugandan nationals and resistance leaders Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, and, in a separate case, Dominic Ongwens.[40] Kony, Otti, and Ongwens were leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (“LRA”).[41] The LRA was designated as a terrorist group in the United States due to its cruelty towards Africans, particularly children.[42] The arrest warrant for Kony lists twelve counts of crime against humanity, including the enslavement and inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering.[43] The arrest warrant for Otti includes eleven counts of crimes against humanity including inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering.[44] These two men remain at large and have come before the ICC.[45] However, in February 2021, the ICC convicted Dominic Ongwen for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed across Africa.[46]

The ICC has shown its continued support in prosecuting the officials of the LRA but has shown little to no interest in investigating Museveni or his administration. In 2010, the ICC launched an investigation into the Ugandan military for its part in the war against the LRA.[47] However, over 10 years have passed and there has been no movement since 2010.[48] More recently, the 2021 election brought Uganda back into view of the ICC.[49] After the most recent election, the candidate running against Museveni asked the ICC to investigate the Museveni Administration.[50] Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, filed a brief that cited incidents spanning back to 2018, which alleged police and military tortured and inflicted serious bodily harm to civilians.[51] Since this brief submission in January of 2021, the ICC has not begun an investigation.[52]

Another avenue to redress grievances of torture is within the United Nations (“UN”). The UN has established that torture and other forms of ill-treatment are one of the few human rights that must be respected without derogation, even during war or a state of emergency.[53] The prohibition against torture has also been addressed in several treaties and declarations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“CAT”).[54]

The purpose of CAT is to prevent the use of torture or punishment and to increase accountability.[55] There are 165 States Parties to CAT, including Uganda.[56] Under CAT, State Parties and signatories are required to create and uphold laws to prevent torture.[57] These States also grant universal jurisdiction over torture that occurs in their territories.[58] State Parties and signatories are first reviewed by the Committee against Torture (“The Committee”).[59] The Committee monitors the implementation of anti-torture regulations and reviews acts inconsistent with CAT.[60]

The most recent Committee report regarding Uganda was published in 2020.[61] The Committee reviewed several observations and recommendations regarding issues such as the use of torture in evidence collection, gender-based violence, and imprisonment.[62] Ultimately, the body concluded that there are several challenges facing Uganda, but it is undertaking progressive and numerous measures to meet the requirements of CAT.[63] There has been no update since 2020 as to allegations submitted to the Committee, nor any general comments have been made in that time. Overall, neither the ICC nor the UN has committed to investigating or condemning the acts alleged in Uganda.

Conclusion

Speech, particularly criticism against the government, has been actively silenced in Uganda. First, the Museveni Administration utilized legal avenues to cut down on online conversation. However, recent allegations of torture to suppress speech move away from legal deterrence and are illegally harming citizens of Uganda. International humanitarian law is slow in investigation, review, and prosecution. The ICC and CAT have neither released official statements condoning or condemning the allegations made against Museveni regarding the 2021 election. However, the international community has made the effort to respond to several other more recent international crimes, including the invasion of Ukraine. Though international conflict of any sort is crucial to address, the allegations of torture in Uganda also deserve further investigation and a pledged commitment to justice.

  1. Uganda: Ensure Justice for Detained, Tortured Author, Human Rights Watch (Feb. 11, 2022) https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/02/11/uganda-ensure-justice-detained-tortured-author.
  2. Id. See also Carol Hills, ‘The torture of political prisoners is real’ in Uganda, says poet and free speech activist, The World (Jan. 31, 2022) https://theworld.org/stories/2022-01-31/torture-political-prisoners-real-uganda-says-poet-and-free-speech-activist.
  3. Supra note 1.
  4. Id.
  5. Supra note 1. See also Fred Sekindi, Presidential Election Disputes in Uganda: A Critical Analysis of the Supreme Court Decisions, 16 J. Afr. Elections 154, 165 (2017).
  6. See Computer Misuse Act (Act No. 2/2011) (Uganda); see also Excise Duty Act (Act No. 11/2014) (Uganda) (amended 2018 and 2021).
  7. Patrick Keatley, Idi Amin, The Guardian (Aug. 17, 2003) https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/aug/18/guardianobituaries. Amin was described by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere as “a murder, a liar, and a savage.” Id. The death count during the Amin regime is not exactly known, but the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva is that it was not less than 80,000 and more likely around 300,000. Id. Another estimate by Amnesty International and other organizations put the number killed at 500,000. Id. According to Amnesty International, the ICJ, and exile sources, Amin deliberately created four agencies to carry out his mass killings, which were usually impulsive decision-making. Id. His reign also caused major economic disparity in Uganda. Id.
  8. Uganda profile – Timeline, BBC (May 10, 2018) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14112446.
  9. David McKenzie, et al., Ugandan President Museveni wins re-election in vote his rival says was rigged, CNN (Jan. 16, 2021) https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/16/africa/uganda-presidential-election-yoweri-museveni-bobi-wine-intl/index.html.
  10. Yoweri Museveni – Uganda’s president profiled, BBC (Feb. 17, 2016) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-12421747.
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. McKenzie, et al., Supra note 9. See also Fred Sekindi, Presidential Election Disputes in Uganda: A Critical Analysis of the Supreme Court Decisions, 16 J. Afr Elections 154, 165 (2017) and Michael J. Altman-Lupu, Uganda’s Tax on Social Media: Financial Burdens as a Means of Suppressing Dissent, 51 Colum. Human Rights L. Rev. 777. See also Uganda elections 2021: Facebook shuts government-linked accounts, BBC (Jan. 11, 2021) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-55623722 (reporting that Facebook had to shut down government accounts in Uganda because of fake and duplicate accounts impersonating users to boost the popularity of Museveni).
  14. Michael J. Altman-Lupu, Uganda’s Tax on Social Media: Financial Burdens as a Means of Suppressing Dissent, 51 Colum. Human Rights L. Rev. 777.
  15. What is the Arab Spring, and how did it start?, Al Jazeera (Dec. 17, 2020)

    https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/12/17/what-is-the-arab-spring-and-how-did-it-start.

  16. Id.
  17. Id.
  18. Heather Brown, et al., The Role of Social Media in the Arab Uprisings, Pew Res. Ctr. (Nov. 28, 2012) https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/2012/11/28/role-social-media-arab-uprisings/.
  19. Michael J. Altman-Lupu, Uganda’s Tax on Social Media: Financial Burdens as a Means of Suppressing Dissent, 51 Colum. Human Rights L. Rev. 777.
  20. Id.
  21. Id.
  22. Computer Misuse Act (Act No. 2/2011) (Uganda).
  23. Id.
  24. Id.
  25. Daniel Mwesigwa, Uganda Abandons Social Media Tax But Slaps New Levy on Internet Data, CIPESA (July 1, 2021) https://cipesa.org/2021/07/uganda-abandons-social-media-tax-but-slaps-new-levy-on-internet-data/.
  26. Elia Biryabarema, ‘My flesh was burning’: Uganda accused of torture again, Reuters (March 22, 2022) https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/my-flesh-was-burning-uganda-accused-torture-again-2022-03-22/.
  27. Id.
  28. Id.
  29. Id.
  30. Id. See also Jason Burke and Samuel Okiror, ‘It was a torture chamber’: Ugandans abducted in vicious crackdown, The Guardian (April 22, 2021) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/22/torture-abducted-uganda-crackdown-museveni.
  31. Supra note 1.
  32. Id.
  33. Id.
  34. Id.
  35. Id.
  36. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: A Guide to Reporting to the Committee against Torture, Redress Ending Torture, Seeking Justice for Survivors (Sept. 2018) https://redress.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/REDRESS-Guide-to-UNCAT-2018.pdf.
  37. How the Court works, Int’l Crim. Ct., https://www.icc-cpi.int/about/how-the-court-works (last visited March 9, 2022).
  38. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, Info Note 2: DRC, Mapping human rights violations 1993-2003, United Nations, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/CD/FS-2_Crimes_Final.pdf (last visited March 12, 2022).
  39. Id.
  40. Prosecutor v. Kony, ICC-0204-01/05, Warrant of Arrest (Sept. 28, 2005) http://www.icc-cpi.int/court-record/icc-02/04-01/05-53. See also Prosecutor v. Ongwen, ICC-02/04-01/15, Warrant Arrest (Juy 8, 2005), http://www.icc-cpi.int/court-record/icc-02/04-01/05-10.
  41. Id.
  42. Lord’s Resistance Army, The Enough Project (last visited April 4, 2022) https://enoughproject.org/conflicts/lra.
  43. Supra note 40.
  44. Id.
  45. Id.
  46. The Prosecutor v. Ongwen ICC-02/04-01/15 (Feb. 4, 2021) https://www.icc-cpi.int/court-record/icc-02/04-01/15-1762-red.
  47. Samson Ntale, ICC to investigate Ugandan army, CNN (June 3, 2010) http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/06/03/uganda.army.icc/index.html.
  48. Id.
  49. Reuters Staff, Uganda’s Bobi Win asks ICC to investigate rights abuses, Reuters (Jan. 7, 2021) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-uganda-election-bobi-wine/ugandas-bobi-wine-asks-icc-to-investigate-rights-abuses-idUSKBN29C2IB.
  50. Id.
  51. Id.
  52. Id.
  53. Supra note 36.
  54. Id. See also UN General Assembly, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” 217 (III) A. Paris, 1948, http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ (last visited April 5, 2022) (Article 5 reads, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”). See also UN General Assembly, “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” 10 December 1984, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1465, p. 85, (last visited April 5, 2022) (Article 2 reads, “A State Party has an obligation to take effective measures to prevent acts of torture…including legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures…”).
  55. Supra note 38.
  56. Id.
  57. Id.
  58. Id. See also Universal Jurisdiction, Int’l Justice Res. Ctr. (last visited April 4, 2022) https://ijrcenter.org/cases-before-national-courts/domestic-exercise-of-universal-jurisdiction/ (explaining that universal jurisdiction is the idea that a national court may prosecute individuals for serious international crimes due to the offensiveness of these acts to the entire international community—it does not matter where the crime occurred, nor the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim).
  59. Supra note 38.
  60. Id.
  61. Second periodic report submitted by Uganda under Article 19 of the Convention pursuant to the simplified reporting procedure, Pursuant to Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman[e] or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (2008), UN Doc. CAT/C/UGA/2 (Feb. 1, 2021).
  62. Id.
  63. Id.

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