Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has appointed a former military intelligence chief, who is blacklisted by the US over alleged rights violations, to lead the country’s feared police force.
Uganda’s police and military have been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, torture and assassination. Much of the repression has been directed at opposition activists contesting the 36-year rule of Museveni.
The appointment of Maj Gen Abel Kandiho, who was recalled late on Tuesday from a new role as security envoy in South Sudan barely two weeks after being moved from his post as head of military intelligence, is a show of defiance towards the US and other western nations that have been critical of the deteriorating human rights situation in Uganda.
Kandiho has “been appointed to the position of the Joint Staff of the Uganda police force,” Uganda’s military spokesperson, Lt Col Ronald Kakurungu, said in a statement.
The US treasury hit Kandiho with sanctions last December alleging that he had presided over the arrest, detention and physical abuse of Ugandans “due to their nationality, political views, or critique of the Ugandan government”.
“Individuals were taken into custody and held, often without legal proceedings, at [military intelligence] detention facilities where they were subjected to horrific beatings and other egregious acts … including sexual abuse and electrocutions, often resulting in significant long-term injury and even death. During these incarcerations, victims were kept in solitary confinement and [were] unable to contact friends, family, or legal support,” the treasury said, adding that in some cases Kandiho was personally involved, leading interrogations of detained individuals.
The action freezes any US assets of Kandiho and generally bars Americans from dealing with him.
There have been a series of crackdowns in Uganda aimed at stamping out dissent, with journalists attacked, lawyers jailed, election monitors prosecuted and opposition leaders violently muzzled.
In the most recent case, a prominent author was held for nearly a month on charges of insulting Museveni and his powerful son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, in a case that has raised international concern.
The author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija shows the welts he says he received when he was tortured in custody. Photograph: Hajarah Nalwadda/AP
Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a 33-year-old satirical novelist, says he was tortured in custody and appeared on television to reveal welts crisscrossed over his back and scars on other parts of his body.
Rukirabashaija’s most acclaimed work is the satirical The Greedy Barbarian, for which he won a PEN Pinter prize, International Writer of Courage, last year.
The novel tackles themes of corruption and greed and has widely been interpreted in Uganda as a reference to the political life of Museveni. Rukirabashaija has previously been arrested and questioned by the military about whether the novel was about the president.
Days before Rukirabashaija was detained, he posted several comments critical of Museveni and Kainerugaba, including one in which he called Kainerugaba “obese” and assailed his military credentials, denouncing the purported plans to have him succeed his father.
The detention of the writer and the allegations of torture have drawn criticism and calls for his release from local activists, international diplomats and rights defenders, including the US Senate foreign relations committee’s ranking member, Jim Risch, and Eamon Gilmore, the EU special representative for human rights.
The EU and several member states issued a joint statement on Monday calling for a “comprehensive investigation” into rights abuses in Uganda.
Last year, lawyers acting for the victims of a wave of abductions and torture by security forces in Uganda named senior military commanders, including Kainerugaba, in a complaint to the international criminal court.
Charles Rwomushana, a security and military analyst, said on Wednesday that Kandiho’s appointment showed that Museveni wanted to “have a firm grip [on] the police force”.
Kandiho will be “powerful enough” to make crucial decisions “in favour of [Museveni’s] government”, Rwomushana said.
Once hailed as a reformist, Museveni has ruled Uganda with an iron fist since seizing control in 1986, when he helped end years of tyranny under Idi Amin and Milton Obote.
The US provides almost $1bn annually in development and security assistance to Uganda, and officials say Washington plays “a key role in supporting the professionalisation of the military”.