Uganda illegally detains journalist without charge

New York, July 26, 2011Security services in Uganda are in flagrant violation of a 48-hour constitutional limit on pretrial detention with their imprisonment of a journalist for 13 days without charge, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Ugandan law requires suspects to be brought to court within 48 hours of arrest, but suspects have frequently been held longer, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Once brought to court, suspects can be held for as long as 120 days before being tried or released.

Augustin Okello, a presenter with private radio station Rhino FM in the northern city of Lira, went missing after he reported to a July 13 evening meeting with Internal Security Officer Steven Eryaku at Lira’s Grand Pacific Hotel. His phone had been off since the meeting, and both security and police forces denied knowledge of his whereabouts–despite repeated inquiries from colleagues and press freedom organizations–until July 22 when Uganda’s military spokesman Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye told the state-owned Rupiny Radio that the journalist was being held by the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force in the capital, Kampala, in connection with a government crackdown targeting the killers and associates of wanted renegade Colonel Edison Muzoora. The state had accused Muzoora of having links to a rebel group in western Uganda.

Okello covered sports and presented Rhino FM’s daily “Morning Express” show, station manager Kenneth Okello said.

Rhino FM news presenter Sarah Acio had been with Okello on the day of his disappearance and confirmed to colleagues and other reporters that Eryaku had requested a meeting with Okello, she told CPJ. She has received threats by unknown individuals who have followed her home on several occasions since Okello’s disappearance, she said. 

The Ugandan Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ-U) has filed for a writ of habeus corpus with the inspector general of police, the chief of defense forces, and the Internal Security Organ commander for the unlawful detention of Okello. The application seeks a court order for the three commanders to appear in court on Wednesday to provide reasons for his detention, HRNJ-U Program Coordinator Geoffrey Ssebaggala told CPJ. According to Uganda’s constitution, a suspect cannot be detained beyond 48 hours without being brought before a court.

“Ugandan security officials must stop targeting journalists with unlawful arrests,” said CPJ East Africa Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “Authorities must follow the law and bring Okello to court immediately or release him.”

Okello’s wife, Christine Awor, was allowed to meet him briefly on Monday at the offices of the Rapid Response Unit, a security division under the Criminal Investigations Department, in Kampala, she told CPJ. The authorities did not provide her with any information regarding the status of Okello’s case or the charges against him. Awor said she is worried about the health of her husband and is concerned for her 4-year-old son, whom she is taking care of without support in her husband’s absence.

Last week, Nancy Obita, chairwoman for the Lango United Journalists Association, and a group of colleagues delivered a letter to the resident district commissioner in charge of security in the district and the deputy police commander of Lira Central Police Station demanding information on Okello’s whereabouts, Obita told CPJ.

Okello is not the first northern Ugandan journalist to be detained incommunicado by Ugandan security forces. In 2009, plainclothes security agents arrested Patrick Otim from his residence in the Pader District and held him incommunicado for more than four weeks before he was charged with treason, according to local reports. On May 6, High Court Deputy Registrar Elizabeth Kabanda ordered Otim’s appearance in court to the Luzira National Remand prison authorities, where he has been for two years. Otim was expected to appear before the High Court in Kampala this week, but Justice Monica Mugenyi postponed the hearing due to an overflow of cases, HRNJ-U reported.