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Ugandan climate activists face charges after a month in maximum security jail

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Eleven Ugandan climate activists who were allegedly beaten and held arbitrarily in a notorious maximum security prison will appear in court on Wednesday charged with a colonial era anti-dissident offense, as reprisals continue against opponents of an internationally bankrolled oil pipeline.

If convicted, the 11 activists, all university students, face up to a year in jail. Four of them – Nicholas Lutabi, Jacob Lubega, Shafik Kalyango and Abdul Aziz Bwete – were allegedly arrested and beaten by police armed with guns, teargas and batons as they marched peacefully towards parliament in the capital city, Kampala, on 15 December.

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 climate activists said they were forced into an unmarked building within the parliament entrance, where the police officers repeatedly kicked, punched and beat them with heavy objects. It is the same place and same abusive treatment reported by at least two dozen anti-pipeline activists over the past two years.

Related: ‘Very disturbing’: crackdown on oil pipeline protests in Uganda concerns UN rights expert

Kalyango, 25, was knocked unconscious after being hit on the back of the neck, and woke up in a locked room 10 or 15 minutes later, according to his colleagues. “I am weak and have pain in my neck and in the stomach when I eat. I’m still not OK,” Kalyango said in an interview more than a month after the arrest. “This was punishment for trying to stop the Total project that will cause so much harm in the future.”

If fully constructed, the Eacop will stretch 900 miles from western Uganda to the eastern coast of Tanzania, from where the oil will be exported to international buyers. The project will generate an estimated 379m tonnes of CO2 over its 25-year life span, more than the UK’s national emissions in 2022.

“The police were very angry, accusing us of inciting violence and trying to overthrow the government,” said Bwete, 26, who said he was kicked and punched in the ribs and chest. “It was brutal. The only crime we have committed is trying to educate the people about fossil fuels and climate change.”

Photos and video footage show police officers restraining the students, who were holding placards and chanting, “We demand climate justice” and “Stop Eacop.” There is no evidence of violence at the protest until police arrived on the scene.

“A pattern is emerging from Uganda in which students who are peacefully advocating for the protection of human rights and the mitigation of climate change are being violently arrested and criminalised … with impunity,” said Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders.

I am weak and have pain in my neck and in the stomach when I eat. I’m still not OK

Shafik Kalyango

“I’ve written to the government about these arrests in the past but haven’t received a response,” she added. “I would urge the Ugandan authorities to change course.”

A spokesman for the Ugandan government said he knew nothing of the arrests and insisted it was a police matter. The police did not respond to a request for comment.

TotalEnergies did not respond either, but it has previously categorically denied any knowledge or involvement in the crackdown and intimidation of peaceful protesters or other pipeline opponents.

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 remanded in custody at the overcrowded Luzira maximum security jail on the outskirts of the city. Here, Lutabi, 24, and Lubega, 24, said they suffered further beatings. The four were eventually granted bail by the court on 10 January and upon release, sought medical help at a public hospital.

In addition to multiple injuries from the police beatings, the students contracted infectious diseases including malaria and typhoid in jail, according to medical records seen by the Guardian.

“To face the extreme conditions that these peaceful climate activists faced in an overcrowded prison for opposing Eacop is unfathomable,” said Dr Julia Halder, infectious disease biologist at Imperial College London, and member of Scientist Rebellion, a direct action climate justice group.

“Typhoid is contracted in unsanitary conditions involving fecal contamination, and can escalate rapidly to become fatal. For this, and malaria, to be part of the direct consequences of opposing a destructive pipeline is beyond cruel.”

The four activists belong to Justice Movement Uganda, a youth-led pressure group that conducts educational campaigns on issues including single use plastics, sanitation and climate justice. “It is our role as the youth and students to rise up and educate our people because the planet is in danger,” said Lutabi.

The arrests came just three weeks after seven activists from another anti-pipeline group, Students against Eacop Uganda, were arrested and detained under similar circumstances, by the same judge. They spent almost four weeks in maximum security and will also appear in court on Wednesday charged with common nuisance. If convicted, they face a custodial sentence of 12 months.

“It is not normal to detain suspects for even a day for a common nuisance charge,” said attorney Ronald Samuel Wanda, who is representing 15 pipeline protesters. “These arrests are arbitrary … Arresting those protesting peacefully demonstrates that the government of Uganda does not respect its own constitution.”

UN experts, the EU and international rights groups have documented those speaking out against the oil pipeline. In September 2022, the European parliament adopted a resolution condemning Eacop for the “wrongful imprisonment of human rights defenders, the arbitrary suspension of NGOs, arbitrary prison sentences and the eviction of hundreds of people from their land without fair and adequate compensation”.

Hanna Hindstrom, senior investigator for the international non-profit Global Witness, which has published an investigation into TotalEnergies activities in the region, said the company had a vested interest in the crackdown on defenders in Uganda and Tanzania, with a “chilling effect on communities affected by the pipeline”.

“These young people are speaking up for the survival of the planet, its communities and ecosystems, and should be heeded, not thrown in jail,” Hindstrom said.

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”.

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