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Police rough up human rights advocate, beat journalists covering opposition leader's arrest

UPDATE: Journalist petitions police's disciplinary body over assault (HRNJ-Uganda, 6 April 2012)

(HRNJ-Uganda/IFEX) - Kampala, 22 March 2012 - Police in Kampala beat up journalists who were covering the arrest of opposition politicians. Freelance photographer Edward Echwalu and Anatoli Luswa, a photographer for the private "Eddoboozi" newspaper, were the victims of the police brutality. Police also roughed up human rights lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuzi and blocked him from accessing his clients at the Central Police Station (CPS).

The police were arresting opposition politicians, including the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader Dr. Kizza Besigye, Kampala female member of parliament Nabbilah Naggayi, Lord mayor Erias Lukwago and FDC women league leader Ingrid Turinawe, among others. The police stopped the politicians and their supporters from touring the city road network. In the resultant chaos as police fired tear gas and some demonstrators retaliated by throwing stones, Assistant Inspector of Police John Bosco Ariong was critically injured, bled profusely and later died of head injuries while being rushed to hospital, according to deputy police spokesperson Judith Nabakooba.

Echwalu is a freelance photojournalist who works for Reuters and "The Observer", a private news publication that comes out thrice a week. He told Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) that four policemen descended on him and started beating him from behind in a scuffle that lasted over a minute. He was the first journalist to get to Kiira from where Besigye had been detained.

"I had just arrived at Kiira road police station when I heard an order to chase me away. As I was getting my camera from the bag, four policemen started beating me from behind. Three of them were using batons while another used his gun butt. They were not willing to look at my press identity card. They were scared away by the arrival of opposition parliamentary members on the scene. The four were immediately withdrawn from the quarter guard and taken behind, but I managed to take their photos. They had no name tags or police identification numbers on their police uniforms," Echwalu told HRNJ-Uganda.

With the intervention of the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Uganda (FCAU) to which Echwalu belongs, he was allowed to enter the police station and report a case. He suffered bruises to his right arm and shoulder and currently is experiencing grave pain on his back and arm, which he used to protect his camera.

In a separate incident, police officers used sticks to beat Luswa on his back and right arm outside the gate of Kampala's Central Prison Station (CPS).

Luswa was the first to arrive at the scene and there were no other reporters to cover the incident at the time. He was beaten in front of the CPS gate as he was taking photos.

"I was photographing policemen beating up a man outside the CPS. Two policemen grabbed me from behind asking why I was taking photos. They started beating me. I introduced myself as a journalist and produced my press identity card but they continued beating me as they tried to grab my camera, which I successfully protected. They beat me for about seven minutes until they saw a group of journalists arriving and coming to my rescue. The policemen ran towards the CPS but I managed to get their photos," Luswa told HRNJ-Uganda.

He sustained bruises and severe pain, and received treatment at a medical clinic in town.

In a related development, Rwakafuzi was roughed up at the CPS and blocked from accessing his clients who had been arrested by police. The Kampala human rights advocate told HRNJ-Uganda that his clients included Dr. Besigye, Erias Lukwago, Nabbilah Naggayi, Ingrid Turinawe and the Kawempe division mayor, Mubarak Munyagwa Sserunga.

He said that despite introducing himself as an advocate for the arrested persons, the police still chased him away and he left without accessing his clients two hours later.

"I got there at around 3:40PM local time. I introduced myself as an advocate for the arrested persons but they forcefully pushed me away. When I explained that the arrested persons had a right to their lawyers, they replied that they had suspended the Constitution which provides for that. They told me to wait outside until 5:00PM, which I did, but even then, they denied me entry until 5:30PM when I left the place. They were many armed policemen armed with guns," They did not act in accordance with the Constitution," Rwakafuzi told HRNJ-Uganda.

"These are all very serious incidents against the media and human rights activists. Worse still they are happening at the hands of the police and security agencies that are supposed to be their protectors. It clearly shows that the media space is shrinking and sinking by the day, especially for journalists covering activities carried out by the opposition. We challenge the police to impartially investigate these targeted attacks and bring the perpetrators to book. We also call upon the Ugandan parliament to intervene in the matter to secure the working environment for journalists," said HRNJ-Uganda Programme Coordinator Wokulira Ssebaggala.

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