Uganda: Arrest of an Italian journalist and a human rights defender mobilized against Total’s oil projects
Maxwell Atuhura, a member of AFIEGO - partner organization of Friends of the Earth France and Survie and member of the international Stop EACOP alliance- and an Italian journalist, Federica Marsi, were arrested on Tuesday 25 May 2021 in Buliisa, in the oil region of Uganda.
They were about to meet with local community members to discuss the impacts that Total’s Tilenga oil project had on them. While the journalist was released later in the day, Maxwell Atuhura spent the night in custody and is still being detained by the Ugandan police.
At around 3:00 p.m. (East African time), Maxwell Atuhura and Federica Marsi were arrested by Ugandan authorities while having lunch in a hotel in Buliisa. They were taken to the police station without being given any reason for their arrests. Both were interrogated and received threats against their lives and safety. The police also reportedly asked Maxwell “why he was working against Total with foreigners?”. This morning, Wednesday 26 May, he is still in custody and is reportedly being transferred to an unknown location.
Although Federica Marsi was released relatively shortly after her arrest, on the condition she would leave the oil region “before bad things happen”, she was arrested again a few hours later in Biso, as she was trying to leave the area in a taxi. She eventually managed to leave the oil region and arrived in Kampala late in the evening.
For many years, Maxwell Atuhura has been relentlessly defending the rights of people affected by oil operations in the region. His organization, AFIEGO, is actively involved in the lawsuit against Total in France, including by gathering evidence on the ground. Like many other human rights defenders who speak out against oil-related issues, Maxwell has been facing repeated threats and intimidations. In recent weeks, he has received a large number of anonymous threatening phone calls, and both his home in the oil region and his family’s home in the capital – several hundred kilometers away – have been broken into, which led him to file a complaint at the Buliisa police station on Monday 24 May. Federica Marsi has written numerous articles on social and environmental issues for news outlets such as Al Jazeera and The New Humanitarian.
These arrests took place despite multiple warnings about the increasing threats and harassment that human rights defenders face in Uganda. A year ago, four United Nations Special Rapporteurs alerted the French and Ugandan governments, as well as Total, on these issues 1 . These attacks multiply as Total and its partners are speeding up the start of the oil extraction project and the construction of a giant oil pipeline in the region.
Friends of the Earth France, Survie and their Ugandan partners call for the immediate release of Maxwell Atuhura and for concrete actions to put an end to the repeated attacks on human rights defenders and journalists.
See the letters sent by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders to the French Government, the Ugandan Government, Total S.A. and Total E&P on 20 April 2020, which were made public in June 2020. These concerns were repeated by other Special Rapporteurs in the context of attacks on environmental activists on 8 December 2020 (Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment; and Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association).