Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni's fourth term in office has taken off against a background of serious concerns about process and the protection of basic rights.
Democratic gains made at the outset of his 25-year rule are being eroded through human-rights abuses under the guise of preserving national security; meanwhile, the Western powers appear willing to turn a blind eye.
In an unprecedented move, the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association on February 9 condemned the Ugandan government's abuse of two leading East African human-rights defenders who sought to address rights violations associated with Uganda's counterterrorism investigations. This well-respected international body, with a membership of thousands of lawyers and legal associations worldwide, works to promote the rule of law in Commonwealth countries.
The resolution highlighted the mistreatment of Kenyan high court advocate Mbugua Mureithi and Al Amin Kimathi, executive director of the Kenyan NGO, Muslim Human Rights Forum (MHRF). For many years, these two men have worked together to address due process and other human-rights abuses arising in relation to terrorism investigations in East Africa, including renditions, enforced disappearances, torture, and unfair trials. They have done so with great courage and at significant personal risk, in the face of hostility from powerful governmental interests.
It is ironic that Mureithi and Kimathi should become victims of the same human-rights abuses they have worked to prevent. On September 15, 2010, they traveled to Uganda to provide legal representation and monitor legal proceedings for several Kenyan nationals who had been rendered from Kenya to Uganda in connection with the July 2010 Kampala bombings, in apparent violation of available extradition procedures.
Shortly after their arrival in Uganda, they were apprehended by five armed men—apparently plainclothes police—and dragged into a vehicle. They were hooded and threatened with execution, driven around and terrorized, and subjected to taunts and threats of death or disappearance before being unlawfully detained and interrogated by Uganda's increasingly notorious Rapid Response Unit.
At the RRU offices in Kampala, they were separately subjected to interrogation. Each was asked to implicate the other, and interrogators accused Kimathi of receiving Al Qaeda funding. They were denied access to lawyers or family. After three days, Mureithi was deported to Kenya without explanation, and threatened with dire consequences should he return to Uganda.
The RRU officers made it clear they did not want any Kenyan lawyers representing the Kampala bombing suspects. As for Kimathi, after being held without charge for five days, he was charged with terrorism and murder, the same crimes as the Kenyan suspects whose proceedings brought him to Uganda. No plausible case has since been made against this human-rights advocate.
The Kenyan suspects in the terrorism case have been denied access to their lawyer, Mureithi.
In December 2010, an international trial observer attempting to attend Kimathi's bail hearing was detained at the border and deported after being threatened and denied consular access for a prolonged period of time.
Uganda's actions blatantly violate minimum standards of Ugandan and international law. They raise grave concerns about the protection of lawyers acting to protect the rule of law.
It is right that the perpetrators of the horrific Kampala bombings should be investigated and, and in accordance with legal process, prosecuted.
However, the Ugandan government's systematic attempts to persecute and block lawyers, human-rights defenders, and trial observers from monitoring its compliance with the rule of law are totally unjustifiable. By engaging in such actions, the government alienates the Muslim community in East Africa and undermines the legitimacy of counterterrorism operations in the region.
In the wake of the Kampala bombings, British and US authorities rightly pledged investigative assistance to the Ugandan government.
Now those investigations have taken a wrong turn, it is incumbent on Britain and the US to act equally firmly in ensuring that they are conducted in accordance with the rule of law.
That begins with the immediate release of Kimathi.