Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni ordered his security chiefs on Tuesday to stop torture by their personnel after media images of a detained politician with septic wounds on his body stirred public outrage.
Human rights activists said those images and other recent incidents where suspects have appeared in court with torture marks on their bodies point to escalating brutality and impunity on the part of Ugandan security personnel.
Pictures began circulating online and in local media last week of Geoffrey Byamukama, mayor of a small town in western Uganda, who was arrested last month on suspicion he participated in the murder of a senior police official in March.
Without accountability, the government's statements smack of public relations and not a fundamental commitment to root out this abusive practice.
In a letter emailed to news media, Museveni told heads of the military, police and intelligence services that torture was “not consonant with logic … The use of torture is unnecessary and wrong and must not be used again”.
Opposition supporters and activists have long said they have been subjected to excessive force by Ugandan security services as a show of loyalty to Museveni, who has been in power since 1986 and is one of Africa’s longest serving rulers.
Security personnel often disperse opposition meetings and demonstrations with arrests, tear gas and beatings.
Critics say Museveni increasingly relies on brute force by security personnel to blunt growing opposition to his rule. Ugandan officials have denied such accusations.
Maria Burnett, associate director at Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, told Reuters that torture was pervasive in Uganda and “overlooked and ignored on a daily basis”.
She said Museveni’s directive was notable for lacking any call for investigations and accountability into past incidents of torture. “Without accountability, the government’s statements smack of public relations and not a fundamental commitment to root out this abusive practice.”
Ugandan law criminalises torture and police have pledged in the past to investigate and prosecute officers accused of engaging in it. But such prosecutions have been extremely rare.
In his letter, Museveni warned that torture posed “possible mistakes that may even interfere with the fight against crime”.
He said there was the risk of torture being used on entirely innocent people and of some detainees being forced into false confessions to escape their ordeal.
Museveni won re-election to his latest term last year but the vote lacked credibility and transparency, international monitors said. His main rival, Kizza Besigye, maintains he won the election but that Museveni stole his victory.