Kampala – Uganda’s government should immediately suspend volunteer police recruited in the run-up to next month’s elections, rights groups said on Wednesday, accusing them of brutal assaults and extortion.
Five international and domestic human rights organisations warned the so-called “crime preventers” are a partisan force aimed at intimidating government opponents, but the program coordinator insisted they are simply civic-minded volunteers.
National coordinator Blaise Kamugisha claimed 11 million people, or nearly a quarter of all Ugandans, have been recruited into the crime preventers program over the last two years, although the rights groups said the figure was nearer one million.
Kamugisha said recruits learned martial arts and undertook “ideological classes”. Children as young as 14 and adults as old as 83 are among the recruits, he said.
Kamugisha said the program is about “community policing” and not aimed at defending President Yoweri Museveni’s 30-year rule in the February 18 poll.
Volunteers ‘guided by police’
But the rights groups – among them Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) – said the scheme was “strongly affiliated” with the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).
“Crime preventers should not be undisciplined and unaccountable recruits who become the eyes and muscle of the ruling party in every village,” warned Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at HRW.
Crime preventers have harassed opposition members and supporters, the rights groups claimed after documenting at least 35 violent beatings with sticks and fists during “citizens’ arrests” for alleged petty crimes.
Kamugisha, a law student and Museveni supporter, said such citizen policing pre-dated the current election cycle, was lawful and nothing to do with politics. He blamed “opposition parties who want to politicise” for the criticism.
Kizza Besigye, an opposition candidate, has branded the crime preventers “goons, thieves and thugs” while Museveni has been dubbed the “Chief Crime Preventer”.
“People are complaining we’re carrying sticks, we’re going to beat others, but that was just part of basic training,” said Kamugisha adding that volunteers are “guided” by police.
But regular officers have also been accused of brutality, incompetence and widespread corruption.
This week police chief Kale Kayihura sacked 400 officers and a handful of commanders in the capital Kampala.
Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper said the hundreds of crime intelligence officers and three commanders were fired for, “failure to prevent crime, alleged connivance with criminal gangs, drunkenness and negligence.”
The sackings reportedly followed complaints from crime preventers. “I don’t blame crime preventers and subordinate officers. It is the commanders failing them,” Kayihura said, according to the Monitor.
A city police spokesperson told AFP the move was to inject “new blood” to combat crime. “It’s kind of an overhaul,” said Patrick Onyango.