23 October 2021 – Yesterday, six staff members of our partner organisation AFIEGO, including its director Dickens Kamugisha1, were arrested in Kampala, Uganda. They are one of four Ugandan organisations involved in the legal case against Total in France. For several months, AFIEGO has been the target of continuous and increasing pressure and intimidation from the Ugandan authorities, who want to prevent it from continuing its activities against Total’s mega-oil project, in defence of the affected communities and the environment. Friends of the Earth France and Survie call for their immediate release and ask the French authorities to take concrete action to help stop the repeated persecution of human rights defenders in Uganda.
The six AFIEGO staff members arrested yesterday are still being detained at Kiira police station in the Ugandan capital. The police is yet to indicate the charges against them. Among those arrested are a breastfeeding mother and a person in need of medical treatment. These arrests follow the initial arrest and subsequent release on bond of several AFIEGO staff members on 13 October 2021. Last May, Friends of the Earth France and Survie had already raised the alarm when an AFIEGO staff member was arrested in the oil region while accompanying an Italian journalist.
These new arrests are part of a pattern of harassment and persecution of AFIEGO by the Ugandan authorities. Known for its activities in defence of human rights and the environment, notably against Total’s mega-oil project, AFIEGO is one of 54 NGOs whose suspension was announced by the NGO Bureau2 on 20 August, in a context of increasing repression of civil society. The NGO Bureau has no authority over AFIEGO and there is no legal basis for the suspension, as AFIEGO’s lawyers told the NGO Bureau.
In recent weeks, pressure against AFIEGO had intensified significantly:
- On 6 October 2021, the police raided AFIEGO’s office in Hoima, in the oil region, and arrested a staff member, who was finally released after several hours at the Hoima police station;
- On 7 October 2021, the police raided AFIEGO’s office in Buliisa, also in the oil region, ordering it to be closed within two hours, as well as the offices of our partner NAVODA, and the community association ORGHA (Oil and Gas Human Rights Defenders Association). Maxwell Atuhura, the staff member who had been arrested in May, was briefly detained, and a few days later, the association’s signposts were vandalised;
- On 14 October 2021, the police arrested and held for 30 hours in custody Mugisa Kahero, chairperson of the community-based organization ORGHA, some of whose members are working with AFIEGO to defend the rights of communities affected by the Tilenga oil project, developed by Total. He was arrested again on Tuesday morning , 19 October, after he had just turned himself in at the police station as required when he was released on bond a few days earlier. He was then transferred to Masindi prison to await a hypothetical trial date.
- Yesterday, on 22 October 2021, in Kyotera district, the police arrested and detained Robert Biriyume, a human rights defender and member of communities affected by the EACOP pipeline project developed by Total, who is mobilised to defend land rights. He was released on bond, and is charged with « incitement to violence, sabotage of the government program and unlawful assembly ».
In a statement released this morning, AFIEGO said: « There is a coordinated effort to silence critical voices that speak out against the destruction of the environment and the abuse of oil project-affected communities’ rights. (…) The arrest of the AFIEGO staff and their partners is aimed at silencing the organisation and other critical voices”. The association also states: « In the letter to the NGO Bureau, AFIEGO promised to take legal action against the bureau if the harassment of AFIEGO and its staff was not stopped”.
In April 2020, four UN Special Rapporteurs had already warned about the situation of human rights defenders in the oil region: « We are further concerned that the harassment of human rights defenders may prevent other Ugandans affected by Total Uganda’s oil project from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression”. UN Special Rapporteurs sent a new letter to the French and Ugandan governments in July 2021, but to date there has been no response.
Ten days after the release of their new investigation How the French State is playing into Total’s hands in Uganda, Friends of the Earth France and Survie call on President Emmanuel Macron, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the French Ambassador in Kampala to show that they are willing to stand up for human rights by publicly denouncing the repeated arrests and persecution of human rights defenders mobilised against oil projects, and by taking concrete action to help secure the immediate release, without any charge, of AFIEGO staff members and of the community leader.
Dickens Kamugisha, director of AFIEGO, came to France twice in 2019 as part of the launch of the legal case against Total. See his TV interview on France 24.
The National NGO Bureau (NGO Bureau) is a semi-autonomous administration under the Ugandan Ministry of Internal Affairs. According to its website, it is supposed to « provide an enabling environment for the empowerment of the NGO sector« , and is mandated to « register, regulate, monitor, inspect, coordinate and oversee all NGO operations in the country« .