By Obed K Katureebe
If one asked the anti-safe house members of Parliament should consider extending detention hours from the maximum of 48 hours to say 120 days, they will shout the loudest Nay. But at the same time, the same MPs will shout themselves hoarse when there is insecurity in the country.
One can be forgiven for mistaking them for ‘ambulance chasers’ praying for insecurity so that they can cash in with the political capital harvested from the fears of wanainchi.
Much as the major composition of this group is the chronic dissenters of anything to do NRM without reason, I note that there is a minority which has an objective or logical navigation albeit fragile but nevertheless better than prejudiced emotions. This write-up seeks to separate logic from emotions.
What is a safe-house?
The definition varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but for the purposes of this missive I borrow from Wikepedia which defines it as follows;
a) A safe house (also known as safe-house) is, in a generic sense, a secret place for sanctuary or suitable to hide persons from the law, hostile actors or actions, or from retribution, threats or perceived danger. b) in the jargon of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, a secure location, suitable for hiding witnesses, agents or other persons perceived as being in danger. c) a place where people may go to avoid prosecution of their activities by authorities.
Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad has been described as a "safe house". d) a place where undercover operatives may conduct clandestine observations or meet other operatives surreptitiously. e) a home of a trusted person, family or organization where victims of war and/or persecution may take refuge, receive protection and/or live in secret.
So from the above definition one can derive 3 major component or aides; 1) a safe-house does not have to be a house, it can be an open area or a vehicle or a boat floating on lake victoria (location or place) 2) secret… it must be kept secret and known to only those who must know. 3) it is used for both noble and bad purposes.
Gen Tumwine vs Democracy vs the Official Secrets Act vs Human Rights
I shall not dwell on the definition since virtually any location, place, object can be baptized a safe-house. The pertinent issue is the secrecy of such a location and the use of it, of which the two are being balanced against the imperious human rights law. The flowing argument is premised on the credulous assumption that a safe-house being utilized by the State Intelligence Services is a prohibited place for the purposes of s4 of the Official Secrets Act.
Revealing their locations and the Oath of Secrecy.
If we agree that the safe-house(s) is a prohibited place and in use for intelligence and or security operations, possibly with munitions stored therein then how come he is being cajoled to reveal the location (s) of the same?? How is that not asking him to breach the Oath of Secrecy which is as follows; I swear/affirm that I will not directly or indirectly communicate or reveal any matter to any person which shall be brought under my consideration or shall come to my knowledge in the discharge of my official duties, except as may be required for the discharge of my official duties or as may be specially permitted by the President. (So help me God).
Even without the Oath, would he not be in direct contravention of section 2 and 4 of the Official Secrets Act. I think the government should now consider legislation that etchers permanently the prohibition of any institution, courts or otherwise from wanting to access state secrets.
In most European jurisdictions they talk about 911 attacks as a shinning reason why we must overestimate the security needs and discount the value of liberty but here in Uganda, there is a longer history of good reason predating the 911. Whereas 911 was a one-day event, we have had decades of conflicts till recently and as such we have even more reason to put national security ahead of any liberties.
Torture and other abuses
Torture is wrong and it must be condemned at all levels of governance, however it is implausible that the safe-houses sole purpose of their existence is to torture Ugandans. Since we know that a safe-house can be anything or any place, torture can still continue. The anti-dote to torture is to trust the Security Services to bring those who torture to book and to sensitise their operatives about the dangers of torture.
Strengthening the Secrecy Law.
There is no doubt our law needs to be developed in regards to state secrets privilege and indeed those who are threatening to sue, this is an invaluable opportunity either to concretize the ‘state secret privilege’ or simply remove it from any judicial consideration.
A law that explicitly prevents anyone or body (including courts) from acquiring and using information (directly or indirectly) classified as a State Secret. There is a whole array of cases to borrow arguments from, most significantly the Abu Omar Italian American rendition case.
The danger is that if one can be cajoled to reveal the operations of a safe-house, then why shouldn’t they be cajoled in the future to reveal what weapons the country has in its arsenal. My point is that letting these legislators into a safe-house will be the beginning of ‘legal familiarization’ by persons and systems that sleep and operate in freedom and security but have no idea and don’t care how it is provided.
Yes there are reports of human rights abuses taking place at the safe-houses, it absurd but are these isolated incidents serious enough for the government to reveal a ‘state secret’, I say No. ‘State security is a fundamental and insuppressible public aspect and prevails over any other‘
The author works with Uganda Media Centre