17 Ugandan activists, freed
A Ugandan court released on bail 17 of 35 opposition activists detained since the start of the year in what activists have described as a crackdown on dissent linked to a January election.
The group, all supporters of singer-turned-opposition leader Bobi Wine, were originally detained on December 30 for violating COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings.
When a civilian court ordered their release, their case was transferred to a military court, where they then faced firearms charges after police said they found four bullets at the home of one of the 32 men.
Andrew Gutti, head of the military court, granted some of the activists bail on health grounds. The remaining 18 men were not released as prosecutors objected to their bail application.
The case has fanned widespread criticism that President Yoweri Museveni is using military courts – whose members he appoints – to crush political opposition.
Despite a court ruling that bars trial of civilians in military courts, hundreds have still been prosecuted in recent years, three defence lawyers told Reuters.
“It is an appendage of the dictatorship,” said attorney Eron Kiiza, who has represented dozens of defendants before the tribunal. “It has been instrumentalised to fight political wars of the ruling party, it does not serve any justice at all.”
Ugandan military spokeswoman Flavia Byekwaso said the law permits court martials of civilians who use weapons and ammunition.
But critics say nearly all civilian cases handled by military courts involve political opposition. Some defendants face treason charges.
The detained activists were arrested while accompanying Wine as he campaigned against Museveni ahead of the Jan. 14 poll. Museveni was declared winner but Wine – whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi – branded the result fraudulent.
Among those denied bail was Wine’s music partner, Nubian Li, who collaborated with him on ballads highlighting state brutality and corruption.
“He is being tried simply because he is close to Bobi Wine. Maybe they think he knows a lot… They think they will just break him,” Li’s wife, Gloria Mutoni, told Reuters.
Hundreds of Wine’s supporters have been detained, abducted or tortured since the election, he said in a complaint filed at the International Criminal Court (ICC) this month.
Neither Museveni’s spokeswoman nor the government spokesman returned calls seeking comment on the case.
Museveni has previously dismissed allegations about abuses.