The State Department said on Thursday that it is “on the lookout” for potential human rights abuses, but did not respond to claims at a Washington press conference that the Ugandan government uses US-supplied military equipment to torture its opponents.
“The military equipment we are supplying to Uganda is being used in a war of terror against Uganda’s citizens,” declared Robert Amsterdam, a US-based attorney representing Ugandan opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi.
The 36-year-old Ugandan activist and MP, a singer popularly known as Bobi Wine, added at Thursday’s press conference that “it is a habit for Ugandan authorities to torture people and then come out and lie about it.”
Mr Wine came to the US on September 1 to receive medical treatment for what he says are injuries inflicted by Ugandan security personnel following his arrest in August.
Mr Amsterdam called for immediate suspension of US military aid to the Ugandan government.
He used the figure of $500 million in reference to that assistance, which may refer to the total sum the US has provided over several years. A Washington monitoring group says US aid to Uganda’s police and military forces amounts to slightly more than $80 million this year.
A State Department official did not respond directly to a query on Thursday concerning alleged use of US-supplied materiel to torture Ugandans.
The official did say that the State Department closely monitors the actions of military units in other countries that benefit from US funding.
“There is no exception for Uganda,” the official said.
A US law requires the vetting of security forces that receive US aid to ensure they are not committing human rights abuses. When evidence of such violations is uncovered, the law mandates suspension of US assistance.
At the Washington press conference, Mr Amsterdam made reference to the Global Magnitsky Act, suggesting that the US should use this law to investigate and punish Ugandan officials who carry out torture.
The Magnitsky Act is named for a Russian accountant, Sergei Magnitsky, who was tortured and found dead in his Moscow jail cell in 2009.
The law authorises the US government to impose financial sanctions and visa bans on individuals anywhere in the world deemed responsible for human rights violations.
The State Department declined on Thursday to indicate whether the Global Magnitsky Act may be used in the case of Uganda.
But the official who responded to a Nation Media Group query did say that this initiative conveys to human rights abusers worldwide that “the United States is on the lookout, we are on the watch, and that there are consequences for this continued behaviour.”
The US official noted that Mr Wine was received at the State Department for talks on Thursday. The Ugandan opposition figure had also met in Washington with US diplomats earlier this year.