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Uganda’s leading opposition politician and presidential candidate, Dr. Kiiza Besigye, should be promptly granted bail and provided with a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said today.

Besigye was arrested in Kampala on Monday on capital charges: treason for his alleged ties to Ugandan rebel groups and rape for an incident that allegedly occurred in 1997.

As the leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change, Besigye is widely believed to pose the greatest challenge to the re-election of President Yoweri Museveni in elections scheduled for March. Three weeks ago, Besigye returned to Uganda after four years in exile in South Africa. In Kampala as well as northern and western Uganda, he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds.

“It’s up to the Uganda government to demonstrate that Besigye’s arrest is not politically motivated,” said Jemera Rone, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the government denies him bail, it will reinforce the perception that it has pressed capital charges against him to prevent him from campaigning for president.”

Uganda’s harsh law on bail provides that suspects preliminarily charged with a capital offense may be held in detention for 360 days before they are entitled to bail. These provisions are inconsistent with Uganda’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial.”

“The principle of innocent until proven guilty is of vital importance in this politically charged environment,” said Rone. “The security services must respect the right of Ugandans to protest this arrest.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Ugandan authorities to exercise restraint in dealing with the people protesting Kiiza Besigye’s arrest. It also called on the political parties and other supporters of Besigye to do all they can to prevent acts of violence by those protesting the arrest.

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