‘It’s extreme’: Uganda tightens screws as vote draws near

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Nairobi (AFP)

Tear gas, midnight arrests, threats and intimidation – the tactics employed in every electoral cycle in Uganda are familiar to anyone who dares to challenge President Yoweri Museveni’s hold on power for 35 years.

But even those accustomed to such brutality say the crackdown ahead of the Jan. 14 elections is extreme, even in a country consistently classified as “not free” by democracy watchdogs.

Journalists have been attacked, lawyers jailed, election observers prosecuted and opposition leaders violently muzzled using coronavirus laws.

The courage surprised Uganda’s allies, with the United States warning last month of “consequences for those who undermine democracy.”

“Overall – not just for people who work on human rights issues – the repression has intensified,” said Oryem Nyeko, researcher at Human Rights Watch in Uganda.

“Things got worse as the elections got closer. ”

Museveni is seeking a sixth term, not bound by the constitution after parliament removed the presidential age and term limits. The 76-year-old has claimed every election since coming to power as rebel leader in 1986 – almost all marred by irregularities and violence.

– Covid crackdown –

Civilian libertarians say the little room that existed for dissent in previous polls has shrunk to the point of virtual disappearance this time around, which has further tilted an already sharply uneven playing field.

Amnesty International says special campaign rules apparently imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic have been “militarized” to beat the opposition – including charismatic young presidential contender and Museveni’s main rival, Bobi Wine.

Where Museveni supporters were allowed to gather in large numbers, Wine rallies were interrupted by tear gas and police wielding batons under the pretext of protecting public health, Amnesty said.

The popstar-turned-MP has been detained countless times for apparent violations of the Covid-19 regulations, has withdrawn the election campaign and placed under house arrest. One such incident in November sparked protests in which at least 54 people were shot dead by security forces.

The electoral commission raised concerns over coronaviruses during the suspension of the campaign this month in Kampala and several other districts. Wine, who is originally from the capital and enjoys popular support there, called the decision “cowardly” and a sign of the regime’s panic.

– Lawfare –

The blatant use of the law – bypassing the law to silence critics – by Ugandan authorities was singled out last month by United Nations special investigators.

In October, a government regulator indefinitely suspended an alliance of election monitoring groups, calling it “illegal.” Two months later, four non-governmental organizations working on electoral processes were accused of terrorist financing and their assets were frozen.

The country’s best-known human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo has been charged with money laundering, a case which has been condemned around the world.

Opiyo’s lawsuits and “the judicial harassment of those who voice their disagreement appear to be tied strictly to the electoral context, and fictitious charges are being used to justify them,” the UN Special Rights Rapporteur panel said at the end December.

Opiyo, who has occasionally advised Wine, obtained a bond on December 30.

But the arrest of such a prominent government critic on seemingly bogus accusations has shocked even veteran rights advocates.

Stephen Tumwesigye, of Opiyo’s nonprofit law firm, Chapter Four Uganda, said harassment and intimidation was expected at election time, but arresting and indicting lawyers was unique.

“I think it’s rather extreme,” he told AFP.

– Journalists under fire –

This election is also the first for the Ugandan police to have at their fingertips a comprehensive and recently completed CCTV surveillance system equipped with powerful facial recognition software from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

Museveni hailed this surveillance network as a modern tool in the fight against crime. But critics say this election served a more sinister purpose, allowing police to track and detain protesters and closely monitor opponents.

“It doesn’t target crime. He is targeting the opposition, ”said Dorothy Mukasa of Unwanted Witness, a Ugandan cyber defense group.

In December, journalists in Kampala – some wearing bulletproof vests – staged a press release from a government press conference in protest after two colleagues were shot dead to cover opposition rallies.

“This is not indiscriminate shooting,” said the Association of Foreign Correspondents in Uganda, citing “a constant pattern of attacks” against media workers by the security forces.

The Ugandan telecommunications regulator wrote to YouTube’s parent company, Google, in December, calling for the blocking of Wine’s YouTube channel, Ghetto TV, citing concerns about national security.

Just weeks before the elections, foreign reporters were kicked out and press credentials torn up, with all journalists being asked to reapply.

The crackdown “shows an unacceptable willingness to sacrifice the safety of journalists and the public’s right to information to censor coverage” of the elections, said Muthoki Mumo of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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