BY JOHN OKOT
Three years ago, Walter Gunya was locked up in a cell at Gulu Central Police Station. The accusation? Malicious damage to property. Even when the charges didn’t hold water, what Gunya didn’t see coming was the torture he would face in detention.
On 27th January 2015, Gunya, then the Local Council 1 Secretary of Holy Rosary Village in Gulu Municipality, went to settle a domestic brawl in his area.
Christine Lanyero, a business woman and her lover Peter Obong were exchanging blows over unclear reasons. It was 6pm. The couple engage in fierce fights so many times that local leaders and residents had become worried that one of them might kill the other one day.
More than once, Gunya wrote to the then Gulu Officer in Charge of Criminal Investigative Department (OCCID) James Asubo about the matter. In a 6th December 2014 letter, Gunya expressed worry that the domestic violence could lead to “shedding of blood”.
“This behaviour has happened several times…this serves to inform you that as leader [of this village, I] have decided that [the] couple [should] be chased way,” he further stated.
The last response from OCCID Asubo authorized Gunya to evict the couple to prevent loss of life, adding that after all, the land the couple was residing on was a forest reserve. The land is located on the outskirts of Gulu town, where several people settled after fleeing their homes at the peak of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency in northern Uganda.
However, when Gunya arrived at the couple’s residence, he was welcomed by a door locked from within and sounds of fighting. He broke the door in order to separate the fighting couple. Once inside, he saw Obong lying in a pool of blood, injured. Gunya rushed him to a nearby clinic with the help of other residents.
“I forgot about chasing them away [because] I had to save the man who was bleeding profusely, yet his lover looked on,” Gunya, a father of six, narrates.
Two days later, three men—two dressed in police uniforms and the other in plain clothes —arrived at Gunya’s home and asked him to report to the police station over a case. He was being accused of malicious damage to property by Lanyero according to the police officers whom he identified as Sergeant Komakech and Watmon.
Gunya also soon discovered that the plain-cloth clad man was Lanyero’s brother, also a police officer, but working in Kampala.
“I got suspicious. This didn’t add up,” Gunya says.
“When I told them I would report to the police station the following day because it was late, the police officers threatened to use force, so I had to agree to their terms.”
Upon reaching Gulu CPS, Gunya noticed that District Police Officer and Officer in Charge of station were absent. “When I asked for the OC [in charge] station, one of the police officers slapped me instead,” he recounts.
“He said that I had no right to question them.”
Later, Sgt. Komakech asked Gunya for Shs15,000 so that he could get assigned to a “safe cell” where “stubborn inmates” would not disturb him.
Gunya didn’t have any money on him, so he was dragged into one of the “unsafe cells”. When the police officer told the inmates that Gunya is a LCI secretary in his area, they descended on him with blows.
By beating up Gunya, the inmates were “seeking revenge,” claiming that many of them had been arrested in the past on written orders of LC leaders in their respective villages.
As part of the assault, the inmates also ordered Gunya to choose one of three posters bearing portraits of opposition politician Kizza Besigye (FDC party), President Yoweri Museveni (NRM party) and the portrait of a Chinese man who stood for “independent”.
“Punch it,” the inmates ordered after Gunya chose the “Chinese poster”.
“When I punched the photo, one of them said I was not hitting it hard.”
Shortly after, the inmates, numbering about 20 and all reeking of alcohol, began beating Gunya all over again. Three inmates then tied his hands and legs with a piece of cloth behind his back and they continued beating him “mostly on the head and chest for about an hour”.
“That was the toughest night of my life,” he recalls.
When Gunya saw police officers outside the cell, his hope for a rescue returned. However, his cry for help was met with sarcastic laughter from the officers.
“I passed out. When I woke up later, I felt sharp pain in my chest and I could not see clearly,” Gunya reminisces.
The inmates began ululating when they saw that he had come to. One of them called other colleagues who began dragging Gunya on the urine-drenched floor. Even when his tormentors were clearly the inmates, Gunya blames the police officers too.
“Why would they condone alcoholism in the cells?” Gunya wonders.
At Gulu CPS cells, inmates reportedly connive with police officers who are on night duty, to buy for them alcohol and opium. A survey by this reporter reveals that alcoholism and drug abuse remains prevalent in Gulu CPS cells. Former inmates say the vice has exacerbated assault and torture incidences in the cells.
The next morning, at around 7: 30 am, fearing that other senior police officers would find out about the torture, Sgt. Komakech sneaked Gunya out of CPS and abandoned him at the gate of Gulu Regional Referral Hospital. The hospital, located in Laroo Division in Gulu town, is just a stone throw away from Gulu CPS (about 10 meters).
Sgt. Komakech’s reason for leaving Gunya at the hospital gate was that he was running late for the morning parade.
Bare chest, weak and in severe pain, Gunya limped into the hospital. Luckily, his brother, Bonnet Acaye, who was working as a dentist at the facility, saw Gunya and helped him.
“My brother was shocked and terrified when he saw me in a bad state. He asked what had happened to me but I could barely talk,” the 56-year-old explains.
A medical examination revealed that some of Gunya’s ribs were broken, he had sub-conjunctival bleeding (red patches beneath lining of the bleeding eye) and Orbital Cellitis (inflammation of the eye tissues). He also felt pain in his chest due to the beatings.
Gunya’s wife, Agnes Lanek recalls the incident like it happened yesterday.
“He was bruised all over. When I asked the officers why he was in that state, no one answered me,” she says.
Gunya and his wife later met Gulu OCCID Asubo, who was surprised to see in him that state. Gunya was told to identify the culpable inmates. He did.
“I told him [Aubo] that some police officers were also present when the torture happened, and he promised to take care of that in court.”
Gunya’s torture case was taken to court.
By then, he had also filed a complaint with Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) regional office in Gulu. However, he was told that UHRC could not investigate his case since it was already in the courts of law. Article 53 (4) (a) of the Uganda Constitution states that the “commission shall not investigate any matter which is pending before a court or judicial tribunal”.
The three inmates involved in the torture were Collin Ochan (initially arrested for murder), Allan Rubangakene and Charles Okwera (both arrested for theft). The trio was to be charged in court with torture and assault on top of the crimes earlier committed.
Despite regaining his freedom a day after his arrest, Gunya was faced with the difficulty of ensuring he got justice against his tormentors. For all the seven times he went to court, the case kept being adjourned until Gulu Grade One Magistrate then Paul Owino, said he could not continue with the case since one of the suspects had been released.
“The information hit me like a bomb shell,” says Gunya.
Because he was too weak and tired of travelling to court, Gunya decided to focus on his health which had been deteriorating. The other motivating factor was that Lanyero, his accuser, had run off to her home village of Atiak in Amuru District where she resides to date. This turn of events led to the case being withdrawn since there was no complainant.
“I think she [Lanyero] realized that I was innocent and she could not bear the shame of being found guilty of lying all this time,” he says.
Last year, Gunya began feeling pain in his right eye, which eventually led to the partial loss of sight in the right eye.
“My right eye needs an operation urgently or I will go blind,” he says.
Gunya struggles to buy the drugs prescribed to him by the doctors to ease his pain, amid the accumulating debt that have taken a toll on his family.
Medical records show that Gunya’s eye pressure was affected because of the beating he received in police detention. Ocular hypertension (high pressure in the eye) refers to a situation where pressure in the eye (intraocular pressure) is higher than normal. Common symptoms include severe headache and pain in the eye, blurred vision, nausea and sudden sight loss.
Gunya also suffers from recurrent back pain after sustaining a condition called spinal cord compression. Due to pressure on the spinal cord, the condition can lead to permanent loss of the spine’s neurological function. For now, Gunya can’t do heavy manual work. The odd jobs he undertakes with his wife cannot sustain his family.
“I need about Shs10 million to be able to start something financially viable which I can rely on since I don‘t have pension,” he says.
Human Rights Focus Executive Director Francis Odongyoo advises Gunya to appeal his case since it case was mishandled. He says after filing the appeal, the organisation can then follow up whenever there is a civil matter like compensation for the victim.
“The police officers can be traced and charged with abetting torture and negligence of duty because they are supposed to detect and prevent crimes but in this, they didn’t do anything,” Odongyoo says.
Uganda’s Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act (2012) defines torture as an act, by which severe pain or suffering whether physical or mental is intentionally inflicted on a person by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of any person whether a public or other person acting in an official or private capacity. Article 3 of the Act states that person who performs any act of torture as defined in Section 3 commits an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for fifteen years or to a fine of three hundred and sixty currency points or both.
Statistics from Human Rights Focus annual report indicate that torture in prisons and police cells increased from 27 cases in 2016/17 to 29 cases in 2017/ 18 in Acholi sub-region.
On alcoholism and drug abuse in cells, Odongyoo, notes that the vice remains a big problem at Gulu CPS cells since many police officers are part of it.
“The police officers are paid by inmates to buy for them opium and alcohol. They use coded language in form of slang so that they are not detected when they talk about these things,” Odongyoo says.
In 2016, a police officer in Gulu was dismissed when a suspect, who had been forced to buy opium the previous night, produced it as evidence to human rights officials who had visited the facility. The inmate said that he had been told by the police officer to purchase it or he would face it rough.
However, Jimmy Patrick Okema, the Aswa Regional Police Commander denies receiving any reports regarding alcoholism and drug abuse in the cells but says he would “look into it more”.
Okema advises Gunya to report his torture case to the Police Standard Unit (PSU) so that investigations can begin.
“We have the records in the office. What needs to be done is to trace who was on that duty that day so that they can face the law,” he says.
Okema however blames some torture victims, saying that they usually “shy away” from following their cases, which jeopardises investigations.
While that may be the case, Gunya knows he deserves justice for the mental and physical pain he has endured since 2015.
“Whenever I draw a mental picture of how I was tortured, I get scared stiff because I almost died,” he says.