NEW SERIES: MY PRISON LIFE
 
 
May 31, 2007
I was beaten for being an Acholi

Aruu County MP ODONGA OTTO was recently arrested together with Kampala Central MP, Erias Lukwago, after they organised a demonstration against the infamous stick-wielding ‘Kiboko Squad’ that beat people during the Mabira protest. He was later detained at Kampala’s Central Police Station (CPS) before being transferred to Luzira Prison. In ‘My Prison Life’ this week, Otto tells MICHAEL MUBANGIZI how he was accused of assault yet he was allegedly assaulted by the Kampala District Police Commander (DPC), Emmanuel Muhairwe.

In 1981, my dad and Ambrose Okullu, then an MP for my constituency, were arrested and detained in Luzira Prison. They were DP politicians and Milton Obote (former President) and his UPC government were cracking down on DP supporters.

As children we asked, where is dad? Why was he arrested?
That is where I got the motivation to join politics, to see that there was justice. So from an early age, I knew I was destined for politics, not church, and I am not surprised that 26 years later, I am also arrested like my dad.

The arrest
On the eve of the rally on April 19, I wrote to the Inspector General of Police, Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, informing him that together with Hon. Erias Lukwago we were organising a rally at the Constitution Square under the theme: ‘Ugandans are against Kiboko Squad.’
People took the law in their own hands and it’s wrong for the head of state to support them.

Kayihura replied saying that he would not permit the rally basing on Article 43 of the Constitution, which says that the enjoyment of one’s rights shouldn’t infringe on the rights, freedoms of others, or the public interest.

I told him that ‘I see this [stopping the rally] as political persecution and we were going ahead with the rally.’
On the day of the rally, together with Hon. Lukwago, we had a public lecture at Makerere University to address students on the theme: ‘Multiparty politics in Uganda’.

Kayihura calls
At about 11a.m., I was seated at the high table addressing students when a student came with a mobile phone. “Kale Kayihura wants to talk to you,” he said.

That was very irregular. The whole IGP to use a student’s phone; he can’t access an MP’s number! Anyway I got out of the hall to receive the call. “This is IGP, I want you to cancel today’s rally,” said the IGP. I insisted we were going ahead with the rally. He said, “If you don’t mind, shift it to Kololo Celebration Grounds. We shall provide you with security there.”

I asked, ‘Why are you giving us the notice one hour to the rally?’
He said, “Please, shift it to Kololo” and asked if we could meet. I said okay, ‘let’s meet and see’. He told me to go to Hotel International Muyenga.

I said ‘no, if we are to meet let’s meet at CPS’. He said: “No, I can’t come to CPS right now. Can I send the Regional Police Commander, Edward Ochom, to meet you at the university and you agree?”
I agreed. He asked me for my telephone number and said Ochom would be at the university within 30 minutes.

We delayed in the public lecture until about 11:45a.m. when our rally was scheduled to start. So it seems Ochom came and avoided us.
After the lecture, we went to CPS to see Ochom, basing on our telephone conversation with the IGP. I went with a driver and Lukwago.

When we reached Pioneer Mall (bellows CPS), the road was blocked. We told the police officers there that we were there to see the IGP and the police removed the metal detector and allowed us entry.

That is why I wonder how the charge of disobeying traffic orders was [slapped] on us yet it’s the police who allowed us entry.
There is no way one could have reached CPS with all the barricades that were on the road.

Picked at CPS
Anyway we continued to CPS and stopped outside. I tried to call Kayihura and Ochom’s phones, they were all off. Then the policemen started surrounding us. They told us to go inside but we declined. That would be like an arrest. We made all efforts to talk to the IGP on phone, but the phones were still off.

That is why I think our arrest was premeditated. It wasn’t by coincidence that all their phones were off. I think this was a bait to arrest us there as it indeed happened.

A policeman came and said, “Arrest them and put them in”. About 11 policemen held us and took us inside CPS. I think you saw the scuffle that ensued.

Beaten by police boss
On passing the metal detector I was assaulted so badly.
The DPC at CPS, Emmanuel Muhairwe, removed a rubber whip from his waist and started whipping me.

He was saying, “You Acholi, how do you disobey the whole IGP…” I have these things on a video footage. When we reached the room, I told him (Muhairwe), “Bwana DPC, you have assaulted me but I will sue you.”

That is when he came to his senses and said, “Officers, officers, get up, come, to this room, write a statement against Hon. Otto, he has assaulted me.”

He was panicking, maybe if I hadn’t told him that I was going to sue him, they wouldn’t have accused me of assault. I was taken in a room to make a statement; there were several policemen. They were all shocked to see me. They couldn’t believe the terrible state I was in. I had about seven lines of beatings on my head. On seeing that, they did not even ask me anything.

As we were there, one officer received a call that Muhairwe had collapsed on the way to hospital. This was all panic. After the statement, they removed our shoes, phones, then dumped us in the cells inside CPS where we found people who had stayed there for six months.

Revenge time
I think we are soon entering the period of revenge in this country. If I, Honourable Odonga Otto, can’t seek justice, then we are going to reach a stage where you want to revenge personally on someone who metes out injustice on you.

This is a very bitter moment for me. It’s the worst thing that has ever happened to me and I will use all means to ensure that I get justice no matter how long it takes.

I have sued Muhairwe. I want Shs 50m in compensation. If I can’t bring Muhairwe to book; if I don’t get justice, then I will take him on personally.

Even in 50 years when I am president of this country, we shall exhume him and try him post-humously. Arrest is normal, but subjecting me to beating!

They preferred charges upon us at CPS before we were taken to CID. They accused us of violating a traffic offence for a car we did not even drive. I was also personally accused of assault. Imagine I was beaten but they had now put a charge upon me.

If you look at the pictures in Bukedde, it was Muhairwe pulling the trousers. I have got a full video footage of him beating me from inside CPS.

Incompetent officers
We met some officers at CID who asked us to make a statement. But another interesting thing happened. I saw that tribalism has eaten up this country. There was a young [Hima-looking] boy who was taking down our statements. He did not even know how to write a statement. He was asking his colleague what to do after writing the name, age, etc.

So these people just bring people from their villages because they want to have their people in all organs of government.

Dragged to court
From there, we were dragged to Buganda Road court at 4:30p.m. We went in a Police vehicle with another 999 patrol vehicle following us.
We found our lawyer Abdu Katuntu at Buganda Road Court.

The magistrate Stella Amabilis mentioned our charges. I wanted to ask, “I am the one who was beaten, how do you charge me with assault?” My lawyer asked the magistrate to order for my medical examination. She said nothing.

We were given bail, the state prosecutor raised no objection but we were taken to Luzira Prison. People there already knew about our arrest. We reached Luzira Prison at about 6:20p.m.

The Police had returned our things; money, wallets and phones on the way to Luzira but they took them at Luzira Prison reception again.
I had nothing to argue about because I was so depressed, feeling so bad and nursing pain.

The officer in charge (OC) at Luzira, one Milton, called us to his office and said: “this is Luzira Prison. We ask you to adjust very fast.” Then they put us inside the cells. They asked for money and bought us sandals.

Inside cells
This was a Friday. I was so bitter, feeling betrayed. I had made up my mind that I was not moving out of the cells. I wanted to be inside the cell until Monday.

But later, I realised that something was bothering the prisoners in front of our rooms. There was excitement among them to see us. Very many prisoners were around. It’s like our stay inside the room deprived them of something. A prison officer came and said: “Hon. Otto, just accept the prison. Why don’t you come to terms?”

Fear of poisoning
I feared the possibility of food poisoning. Some inmates were giving us unnecessary attention so that also worried us. Visitors brought us food so we never ate the prison’s food. The quality of food is so poor, so miserable. I would rather die than eat their posho and beans.

I have been sitting on the Parliamentary Committee of Defence and Internal affairs. We even budget for cooking oil for prison food but what is served is strictly maize and boiled beans. There is nothing like oil.

It seems some big shots are eating that money. A prison official told me oil is only for sick prisoners. The nights were very uncomfortable. Some inmates have bigger mattresses. I was with Lukwago sleeping next to the door on a thin mattress, about two inches.

Politics in church
On Sunday, there were prayers in churches. They called us to address people in church. We addressed them on politics, not church affairs. We told them how the Museveni’s regime has become dictatorial.
At lunch time, prisoners normally go to their rooms to be counted, but by 12:55p.m. Lukwago was still addressing prisoners, and I hadn’t even started.

At 1:00p.m. they rang the bell for people to go to their rooms to be counted. This was a big frustration. We were still talking and so the prison officers weren’t comfortable telling us to go back to our rooms.

The inmates outside also found it convenient to run into the church to avoid the routine counting, so all of a sudden so many inmates entered the church.

Lukwago finished at 1.10p.m. and I also started addressing them. A prison official came for us and I told him: “no, let’s first address these people then we shall come.”

He went away but came back shortly saying that we were needed in the office of the welfare officer. We went there but he engaged us in other things; their intention was to stop us from addressing the crowd. But compared to Police, prisons officials are professional in their work.

Prisoners speak
Later on Sunday afternoon, we sat under the tree where prisoners started telling us their problems, like how they were arrested.
I was touched by three cases. One is a story of a Ghanaian. He was arrested on December 10, 2006 by the Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU) and kept in someone’s toilet for three months. They got money from the bank using his ATM card. He was later dumped at CPS.

Jailed for 32 years
I also found there a man who had been sentenced to 32 years by a court-martial’s UDC-Unit Disciplinary Committee. These are Court-martials in districts like Koboko, if you make a mistake; they constitute a court and sentence you.

I saw other people who had been there [Luzira] for 5, 8, 12 years because of this ‘kangaroo court’. This is an issue I want to bring to Parliament. Only the High Court should have powers to give sentences beyond five years.

These things of court-martial must be disbanded; if they are to stay we should hire lawyers from UPDF to carry out the exercise, not anyone because they have a higher rank.

It was so painful but I don’t regret having gone to Luzira because I am going to spend my four years being an advocate for those who have no access to justice.

I found there more than 500 people who have been on remand for up to eight years without being taken to court. There was a man who was almost running mad, boxing the wall. He has been there for seven years without appearing in court.

Together with Lukwago we are bringing a motion appealing to the Executive and the Judiciary to unconditionally release all people who have been in prison for more than five years without trial.

I met another guy who was sent by the army to do a Master’s degree in Sweden. He was able to do a master’s and doctorate (PhD) at the same time. When he came back, he was arrested for insubordination and he has been in Luzira for three years.

It doesn’t make sense to me; I don’t know how these court-martials work; they should instead have awarded him a medal.

Forced to plead guilty
Then there are also some activists who tell prisoners that if they go to court and accept that they are guilty, they will be released.
But the moment they accept guilt before the magistrate, then they are sentenced to full term of their offences.

The status of prison officers, like salaries, need to be improved. They sleep on verandas, on cement with no mattresses even when it’s raining, yet even [some] hardcore criminals, murderers, sleep inside on mattresses. It’s a miserable job; they can’t even afford newspapers. You see them in their torn trousers. It’s too much. Something needs to be done.

Concerning hygiene, the inmates are aware that without hygiene you will die. So they are very strict, they clean their halls.

Goodbye Luzira
The last night was a very long night. Save for the political struggle, I did not want to leave prison because I had become so passionate, I did not want to leave prisoners who had told me their problems.
They needed someone to listen to them.

At the same time, I also wanted to come out. I had a lot of anger. I also wanted to make my constituency happy. So on Monday morning they gave us prison numbers before we left Luzira. I was MBR 707, Lukwago was 706.

The bus was already outside; everybody was handcuffed except us.
At one time at Luzira they wanted to take our fingerprints but we refused. What for? I said “no, you rather sentence us for refusing”.
First of all, they don’t even have computers, it’s a fake method and they just brought ink. It’s a normal thing they do to everyone. I said to hell with their nonsense.

On reaching [city centre], they had cordoned off the court. Even my wife who happens to be one of my lawyers was also blocked from entering. She had to force her way in. We were before the magistrate at 9a.m. My lawyer demanded that I had to go for a medical examination which was granted.
Anyway, we were released and I reached home in Namasuba at 5:00p.m.

Reflections
My resolve to oppose President Museveni and the entire regime has increased. It has in fact doubled. It’s not a big issue that I was in prison. But the important thing is that there are people who can’t be treated like Hon. Otto, whose plight the press can’t even write about, people who can even rot in prison.

The entire Police is like the NRM youth wing. Who is more criminal, is it Otto who caused a traffic offence of Shs 40,000 to be in Luzira or people who ‘ate’ the entire Global Fund money?

I have been able to see another world; I don’t have any single regret.
In fact, we are heroes; we are the ones who made Mabira survive. We are winners who should be given medals. I will be happy if I see Museveni chickening out of Mabira.

My father used to tell me that as a politician, the next home is prison. I now joke with friends that I have got my degree from the University of Understanding in Luzira.

I don’t regret save for the violation of my rights. The Police officer who assaulted me is going to cough money; we are going to drag him to court.

I sued him personally because we need to start pulling ears of these individuals who violate our rights.

mcmubs@ugandaobserver.com