HRW accuses Uganda of crackdown on activists protesting oil projectThu, 02 Nov 2023 07:08:27 GMT

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday accused Ugandan authorities of harassing, arresting and beating activists and demonstrators protesting a major East African oil project led by French giant TotalEnergies.The $10-billion project by TotalEnergies and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation to develop oilfields in Uganda has been hailed by President Yoweri Museveni as an economic boon but has run into opposition from rights activists and environmental groups.It is facing legal action in France, and the European Parliament has raised concerns over the wrongful imprisonment of environmental activists and the eviction of people from their land without adequate compensation.The project involves drilling around 400 oil wells in Murchison Falls National Park, the largest protected area in Uganda, and shipping crude along a 1,445-kilometre (900-mile) pipeline to the Tanzanian port of Tanga.TotalEnergies says those displaced by the project have been fairly compensated and measures have been taken to protect the environment.HRW interviewed 31 people in Uganda and Tanzania between March and September 2023, including 21 activists, many of whom said they had faced a barrage of threats, harassment and arrests without charge.John Kaheero Mugisa, former head of the Oil and Gas Human Rights Defenders Association, which is pushing for fair compensation for those displaced, told HRW he was arrested several times and his health has deteriorated after seven months in prison.Activists working in Uganda’s capital Kampala as well as Buliisa and Hoima, the two towns closest to the oilfields, said their offices were raided in 2021.”Most of us limit our work because of pressure and threats from our local officials. We fear arrest and losing our livelihood,” one activist told HRW.Jealousy Mugisha, one of those displaced by the project, travelled to France for a court hearing and said he was detained and interrogated for hours after returning to Uganda.He told HRW that government security agents at the airport warned him: “You are not supposed to witness in France again. If you go again, you will lose your life.”- ‘Chilling crackdown’ -HRW also interviewed students who were arrested at demonstrations staged against the project.One of those interviewed said he was detained during a protest in June at Uganda’s parliament and beaten by uniformed parliamentary security officials and others who used “batons, gun butts, and… their boots to step on our heads.””This crackdown has created a chilling environment that stifles free expression about one of the most controversial fossil fuel projects in the world,” said Felix Horne, senior environment researcher at HRW.”The government of Uganda should immediately end arbitrary arrests of anti-oil pipeline activists and protect their right to exercise freedom of expression, in accordance with international human rights norms,” he said.Responding to the allegations in the report, TotalEnergies told HRW that it recognised “the importance of protecting human rights defenders and (did) not tolerate any attacks or threats against those who peacefully and lawfully promote human rights.”Uganda’s government did not respond to the allegations detailed in the report, HRW said.HRW in July urged a halt to the project, warning of dire consequences for the environment and local communities.But Museveni has vowed to proceed with the project.