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New Government Frees 1,203 Political Prisoners

August 10, 1985

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) _ The new military regime freed 1,203 political prisoners Saturday it said were jailed by the ousted civilian president, Milton Obote. A Cabinet member called it ″a wind of change″ in Uganda’s often criticized human rights record.

The prisoners, all from a maximum security prison near Kampala, arrived by truck to a ceremony in a downtown square packed with an estimated 70,000 cheering people.

The list of prisoners included guerrillas who fought the Obote government and some top aides of former dictator Idi Amin.

Lt. Gen. Tito Okello, named head of state two days after a July 27 coup, announced at the ceremony that the new regime would hold peace talks in Tanzania on Tuesday with the main anti-Obote guerrilla faction, the National Resistance Movement. He said talks with other guerrilla factions would follow.

Okello, fellow army officers and members of the new Cabinet were joined by foreign diplomats and religious leaders at City Square for the prisoner release. Red Cross workers met the prisoners to arrange their transportation home.

Former prisoners said in interviews that their treatment at Luzira was tolerable, although they received only meager, once-daily rations. But one of them, James Namakajo, 38, said he knew of 68 prisoners who died of starvation or lack of medical treatment at two other prisons where he was held.

″People were starving to death. People were eating banana peels, if they got them, and they got sick from picking rubbish to eat,″ he said.

Obote’s government had been widely accused of sanctioning human rights abuses by prison officials and security forces.

The new internal affairs minister, Paul Ssemogerere, said at the ceremony that the prisoner release and the military rulers’ disavowal of violent reprisals against Obote backers were ″only the first signs of a wind of change in the relations between the government and the people of Uganda in the field of human rights.″

Okello told the crowd that Obote failed to bring peace or justice to Uganda.

″Beginning with the regime of Idi Amin, our country has suffered continuously from a process of political and moral decay,″ Okello said. ″The human rights guaranteed by the constitution were frequently violated.″

Human rights groups say Amin ordered the killing of tens of thousands of opponenents during his 1971-79 rule.

The detainees, including 44 women, began assembling at 8 a.m. outside the prison for the eight-mile ride to City Square. Some joked with their guards, others knelt in prayer.

Some freed prisoners said they believed about 200 anti-Obote guerrillas remained in detention. There was no official confirmation of this report or explanation for why some rebels might not have been freed.

Ssemogerere said the only people detained since the coup were about 100 members of the dissolved National Security Agency, Obote’s secret police.

Munno, a Roman Catholic-backed Kampala newspaper, reported recently that more than 1,000 of Obote’s bodyguards and secret police agents had been detained.

Okello, in announcing the planned talks with the National Resistance Movement, did not indicate whether he had accepted the guerrillas’ conditions.

In a statement issued Friday, the guerrillas said they would negotiate with the military leaders only on condition that the army delegation not present itself as the government.

The guerrillas are led by Yoweri Museveni, a defense minister who took up arms against Obote in 1981.

Okello is trying to arrange negotiations among Uganda’s political parties aimed at forming a broad-based interim government. He has promised that democratic elections will be held within a year.

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