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Environmental advocates from Uganda are being charged following a 30-day period in a high-security prison.
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Environmental advocates from Uganda are being charged following a 30-day period in a high-security prison.

On Wednesday, eleven climate activists from Uganda will face charges for a historical law used to suppress dissidents, following reports of them being physically abused and detained in a high-security prison. This is part of a larger trend of retaliation against those who oppose a foreign-funded oil pipeline project.

If found guilty, the group of 11 individuals, who are all students at a university, could potentially be sentenced to imprisonment for a maximum of one year. Among them are Nicholas Lutabi, Jacob Lubega, Shafik Kalyango, and Abdul Aziz Bwete, who were reportedly detained and physically assaulted by police officers carrying firearms, tear gas, and batons while participating in a peaceful march towards the parliament in the city of Kampala on December 15th.

They were targeted after becoming separated from a larger protest calling on the Uganda government to stop construction of the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (Eacop), a $5bn fossil-fuel project backed by the French conglomerate TotalEnergies and a Chinese national oil company, as well as the governments of Uganda and Tanzania.

The activists fighting for climate change were allegedly taken to an unmarked building at the entrance of the parliament. There, police officers allegedly subjected them to physical violence, including kicking, punching, and beating with heavy objects. This location and type of mistreatment have been reported by approximately twenty-four anti-pipeline activists within the last two years.

Kalyango, who is 25 years old, was rendered unconscious when he was struck on the back of his neck. According to his coworkers, he regained consciousness around 10 to 15 minutes later in a room that was locked. In an interview over a month after the incident, Kalyango stated, “I am feeling weak and experiencing pain in my neck and stomach when I eat. I am still not fully recovered.” He believes that this was punishment for his attempts to halt the Total project, which he believes will have harmful consequences in the future.


The Eacop, if completed, will span 900 miles from the west of Uganda to the eastern coast of Tanzania, where it will export oil to global purchasers. The venture is expected to produce 379 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.2

During its 25-year existence, it will emit more than the United Kingdom’s total emissions in 2022.

Bwete, a 26-year-old person, stated that the police were furious and claimed that we were promoting violence and attempting to overthrow the government. Bwete also shared that they were physically assaulted by being kicked and punched in the ribs and chest. They described the experience as brutal and expressed that their only wrongdoing was trying to educate others about fossil fuels and climate change.

Images and videos captured police officers restraining students who held signs and chanted phrases such as “We demand climate justice” and “Stop Eacop.” There is no proof of any violent acts at the demonstration prior to the arrival of law enforcement.

Mary Lawlor, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights defenders, stated that there is a trend in Uganda where students who peacefully advocate for human rights protection and addressing climate change are being aggressively arrested and charged with crimes without any consequences.

She stated that she has previously contacted the government regarding these arrests, but has not received a response. She strongly encourages the Ugandan authorities to alter their actions.

A representative of the Ugandan government stated that they were not aware of the arrests and maintained that it was under the jurisdiction of the police. There was no response from the police when asked for a comment.

TotalEnergies has not replied, but they have previously denied having any knowledge or involvement in the suppression and intimidation of nonviolent demonstrators or other individuals opposed to the pipeline.

The injured students were held at the central police station for four nights, without access to an attorney or medical attention. On 19 December, they were taken to court and formally charged with common nuisance. The broad offense, which has been widely criticized by legal experts as discriminatory, is currently being used against climate justice activists and the LGBTQ+ community.

The students were detained in the overcrowded Luzira maximum security jail on the outskirts of the city. While there, Lutabi, 24, and Lubega, 24, reported experiencing additional physical abuse. Eventually, on January 10th, the court granted them bail and upon being released, they sought medical assistance at a public hospital.

According to medical records viewed by the Guardian, the students not only suffered various injuries from being beaten by the police, but also caught contagious illnesses such as malaria and typhoid while in jail.

“It is incomprehensible that these nonviolent activists, who were imprisoned for standing against Eacop, had to endure such extreme conditions,” stated Dr. Julia Halder, a biologist specializing in infectious diseases at Imperial College London and a member of Scientist Rebellion, an environmental justice group that advocates for direct action.

“Contracting typhoid in unsanitary environments due to fecal contamination can quickly lead to death. To have this, along with malaria, as a direct result of opposing a harmful pipeline is extremely inhumane.”

The group called Justice Movement Uganda consists of four activists who are focused on educating the public about important topics such as single-use plastics, sanitation, and climate justice. According to Lutabi, the youth and students have a responsibility to raise awareness and educate others, as the planet is currently facing threats.

The apprehensions occurred only 21 days after seven members of a different organization opposing the pipeline, Students against Eacop Uganda, were taken into custody under comparable conditions by the same judge. They were held in a high-security facility for almost four weeks and are scheduled to attend court on Wednesday to face charges of causing a public disturbance. If found guilty, they could be sentenced to up to one year in jail.

Attorney Ronald Samuel Wanda, who is representing 15 pipeline protesters, stated that it is unacceptable to detain suspects for a common nuisance charge, even for just one day. He believes that these arrests are random and arresting peaceful protesters shows a lack of respect for Uganda’s constitution by the government.

In September 2022, the European parliament passed a resolution denouncing Eacop for detaining human rights activists, halting NGOs, unjustly sentencing individuals to prison, and forcibly removing hundreds of individuals from their land without proper compensation. This has been documented by UN experts, the EU, and international human rights organizations.

According to Hanna Hindstrom, a senior investigator at the non-profit organization Global Witness, the company TotalEnergies has a strong stake in the suppression of activists in Uganda and Tanzania. This has a negative impact on the communities impacted by the pipeline. Global Witness recently released a report on TotalEnergies’ activities in the region.

Hindstrom emphasized the importance of listening to these young individuals who are advocating for the protection of the planet, its communities, and ecosystems. They should not be punished but instead, their voices should be taken seriously.

Last year TotalEnergies told the Guardian it was unaware of “any allegations by human rights and environmental defenders of threats or retaliation made by its subsidiary, contractors or employees in Uganda or Tanzania”.

Source: theguardian.com