Uganda: Release human rights defender arrested while investigating impacts of Total’s oil projects

Inclusive Development International deplores the arbitrary arrest and detention of Ugandan human rights defender Maxwell Atuhura and calls for his immediate release and an end to the repeated attacks on human rights defenders and environmental activists in Uganda.

Maxwell Atuhura, a field worker for our partner organization AFIEGO (Africa Institute for Energy Governance) and fellow member of the global #StopEACOP Alliance dedicated to stopping the development of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, was arrested along with Italian journalist Federica Marsi yesterday in Buliisa, Uganda’s oil region.  The arrest occurred as they were preparing to meet with local community members to discuss the impacts of Total’s Tilenga oil project. They were not told the reason for their arrest.  Both were taken to the police station and interrogated. Police reportedly threatened their lives and safety and asked Maxwell “why was he working against Total with foreigners?”

Federica Marsi was released shortly after her arrest on the condition she would leave the oil region “before bad things happen,” but was arrested again a few hours later in the town of Biso as she tried to leave the area in a taxi. She eventually managed to leave the oil region and arrived in Kampala late in the evening of May 25.

Maxwell Atuhura remains in custody and was reportedly being transferred to the Hoima police station, where he has not yet been allowed access to a lawyer.  We have grave concerns for his safety at this time.

For many years, Maxwell Atuhura has relentlessly defended the rights of people affected by oil operations in the region. His organization, AFIEGO, is actively involved in the lawsuit against Total in France, including by gathering evidence on the ground to support the case.  Like many other human rights defenders who speak out against oil-related issues, Maxwell has faced repeated threats and intimidation. In recent weeks, he has received anonymous threatening phone calls, and both his home in the oil region and his family’s home in the capital have been broken into, which led him to file a complaint at the Buliisa police station on Monday 24 May, just a day before his arrest.

Federica Marsi has written numerous articles on social and environmental issues for news outlets such as Al Jazeera and The New Humanitarian.

The arrests of Maxwell Atuhura and Federica Marsi are the latest in a series of attacks on human rights defenders in Uganda.  A year ago, four United Nations Special Rapporteurs warned the French and Ugandan governments and Total about the increasing threats to human rights defenders and environmental activists there. Inclusive Development International and our partners in the #StopEACOP Alliance fear these attacks could multiply as Total and its partners rush to expedite oil extraction and construction of the pipeline.

“Inclusive Development International calls upon the Ugandan authorities to immediately release Maxwell Atuhura and cease these attacks on human rights defenders,” said Executive Director David Pred. “Total has a special responsibility in this case to secure Mr. Atuhuru’s release and ensure that human rights workers and journalists are not threatened and harassed as they report on the impacts of its operations and support affected communities to defend their rights.”

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