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Ugandan Opposition Leader Remains Behind Bars

Presidential hopeful Kizza Besigye has won a court ruling allowing him to stand, but that is unlikely to improve his chances of getting out of jail.
By Peter Eichstaedt
Kizza Besigye, the strongest political challenger to incumbent President Yoweri Museveni in next year’s presidential election, remains behind bars despite having been granted bail by the country’s highest court.

Besigye’s wavering political fortunes, however, brightened slightly on December 12 when Uganda’s electoral commission ruled that Besigye can be nominated in absentia by his party, the Forum for Democratic Change, FDC.

The filing of official nomination papers takes place this week in Kampala’s Mandela Stadium, kicking off a 10-week presidential election campaign.

Electoral commission chairman Badru Kiggundu said Besigye can be nominated despite his imprisonment and the pending civil and military court cases. He was arrested last month and charged with treason and rape, as well as terrorism and illegal possession of firearms.

The commission’s ruling flies in the face of the opinion voiced by the country’s attorney general last week that Besigye was unfit to hold public office because he has refused to renounce rebellion if he loses next year’s election. Attorney General E. Khiddu Makubuya said that although Besigye’s candidacy was not specifically illegal, it was “tainted with illegalities” because of the pending court cases.

The decision that Besigye can stand for election will do little to speed his release from the Luzira prison on what some consider trumped-up charges.

His confinement began more than a month ago after he and supporters returned from a pre-campaign tour across Uganda which consistently drew large crowds. When Besigye and his entourage arrived at a congested roundabout in the capital, Ugandan police pounced, pulling him from his vehicle, and throwing him in jail. Beside treason, Besigye is charged with the rape of a university student, alleged to have taken place in 1997. Both charges carry the death penalty.

The opposition leader’s arrest sparked riots in Kampala, which left many injured, vehicles destroyed and shops looted.

Chief among the government’s complaints against Besigye is his alleged association with the People’s Redemption Army, PRA, an obscure group supposedly based in the Democratic Republic of Congo and accused of preparing an armed assault against the Ugandan government. The government also claims that Besigye has links with the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group which has terrorised northern Uganda for nearly 20 years and has driven more than a million people from their farms and into refugee camps.

In October, Besigye returned from four years in exile in South Africa where he fled after losing his bid for the Ugandan presidency in 2001. Despite warnings from Museveni that he could face charges once back on Ugandan soil, Besigye refused to exclude armed rebellion if he lost his second effort to unseat Museveni.

Efforts by the government to sway public opinion against Besigye have backfired. When several self-confessed members of the PRA already in government custody were paraded before the press, they denied having had any dealings with Besigye.

Then, in a live radio broadcast, the LRA’s second-in-command, Vincent Otti, who was recently indicted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, also denied any connections or contact with Besigye.

A bid by Besigye to seek release through the judicial system ended abruptly when a squadron of heavily-armed soldiers known as the Black Mambas stormed the Ugandan high court and “re-arrested” him and some others of the 23 prisoners accused of treason who moments earlier had been granted bail.

Museveni rose to power in 1986 when he deposed Milton Obote, who years earlier had overthrown Uganda’s most notorious dictator, the late Idi Amin.

After being elected president for two consecutive terms, Museveni was facing the end of his political career due to the constitutional limitation on the number of times anyone can serve as president. But earlier this year, he pressured parliament into removing the restriction, clearing the way for him to stand again.

Condemnation by foreign governments of Besigye’s arrest and the threat to withhold financial aid have had little effect. Museveni has warned the international community to stay out of Ugandan politics. “I don’t need lecturers,” he said, appearing to be increasingly intolerant of criticism.

Ugandan police recently barged into the country’s major opposition newspaper The Monitor, saying it had broken the law by printing political posters and ads supporting Besigye. Meanwhile, the paper’s chief political columnist Andrew Mwenda faces sedition charges for criticising Museveni on a radio talk show.

Besigye’s arrest leaves his FDC party casting about for a candidate to replace their leader should he remain behind bars, and has also generated concerns about the legitimacy of next year’s election.

Peter Eichstaedt is senior editor with the Ugandan Radio Network, an IWPR Africa project. Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi, political correspondent for the Uganda Radio Network, contributed to this report.

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