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The Ugandan government should reverse its ban on speech and demonstrations linked to the trial of the main opposition candidate for president, Dr. Kizza Besigye, and end its intimidation of the courts, Human Rights Watch said today. The government issued the ban on speech and demonstrations on November 22 following criticism of the security forces’ interference in a hearing related to the Besigye case.

“In an eight-day span, the Ugandan government has seriously damaged its human rights reputation by riding roughshod over the rights of political opponents and the courts,” said Jemera Rone, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government has arrested the main presidential opponent, used commandos to intimidate the judiciary and banned all public protests, radio discussions and even posters on the subject.”

Besigye, a former presidential contender, went into a four-year exile in South Africa after he lost the 2001 election. He was arrested on treason and rape charges on November 14, three weeks after he returned to Uganda to run against President Yoweri Museveni in the March 2006 presidential race as the candidate of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Following Bisegye’s arrest, there were several demonstrations in the streets of Kampala. The government responded with teargas; one person was killed.

On November 16, the government sent 30 heavily armed commandos in black t-shirts to intimidate a judicial hearing on a bail petition by 14 of the 22 Besigye co-defendants. The defendants, judicial personnel, journalists, relatives and foreign diplomats observing the proceeding were in effect held hostage as commandos occupied the courtroom in an effort to apprehend the defendants should they be released on bail. The Principal Judge of Uganda, Justice James Ogoola, called this action “unprecedented” and a “day of infamy.”

“One of Uganda’s chief judges has denounced the government’s attempt to intimidate the judiciary with state security and military forces,” said Rone. “The government should investigate those responsible and prosecute them for this violation of the right to a fair trial and the independence of the judiciary.”

As a result of this show of force inside the courthouse, the 14 defendants, although granted bail, refused to accept it, fearing they would be immediately arrested and held incommunicado in military barracks. They instead were returned to Luzira Prison. The presiding judge in the case stepped down.

On November 18, the government responded to the principal judge’s sharp criticism of its actions in the Besigye case by banning demonstrations anywhere in Uganda on any matter before the courts, saying they would “interfere” with fair trial rights. The ban, issued on November 22, preceded a much-awaited bail hearing for Dr. Besigye himself, set for November 24. The oppressive order has been extended to apply to all discussions of the controversial case, including radio talk shows and seminars. Opposition activists trying to hang posters have been arrested and the posters, denouncing the trial, have been confiscated.

“If the government cared so much about fair trial rights, it would never have sent armed men into the courthouse last week to intimidate the judge and the defendants,” Rone said.

The “men in black” reportedly belong to a new unit of the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force which has worked closely with the U.S. government on counterterrorism matters in the past.

“The U.S. government should cut all relations with the Ugandan police, military and security personnel who participated in the outrageous assault on the court,” Rone said. “Intimidation of judges and defendants cannot be tolerated.”

Museveni, who has been Uganda’s president ever since he came to power as a rebel leader in 1986, is running for his third term as president, after Parliament amended the constitution in mid-2005 to lift the limit of two presidential terms. Besigye, who was Museveni’s personal doctor as well as a rebel and then an officer in the new government army that Museveni founded, ran against Museveni in the last presidential elections in 2001, which were marred by violence. Museveni won, and Besigye garnered 26 percent of the vote.

“Opposition supporters in Uganda have a right to peacefully protest any aspect of the judicial proceedings,” said Rone. “They also have the right to demonstrate in support of their presidential candidate’s freedom.”

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