Uganda: Museveni’s anti-bail stance keeps opposition legislators locked up

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Monday, 16 May 2022 13:51

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni gestures near his herd of Acholi cattle at his farm in Kisozi settlement of Gomba district, in the Central Region of Uganda, January 16, 2022. Picture taken January 16, 2022. REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa - RC2C0S9FHGH5

Two members of Uganda's parliament have remained locked up for almost eight months as President Yoweri Museveni takes a hard stance against granting bail to defendants in one of his latest ploys to curb the opposition.

Muhammad Ssegirinya and Allan Ssewanyana of opposition leader Bobi Wine’s National Unity Platform (NUP) were arrested in September on murder and terrorism charges following several killings in Uganda’s southern Buganda region. Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, won the region in the presidential election last year that saw Museveni re-elected to a sixth term despite a campaign marred by widespread allegations of violence and fraud.

The two legislators representing parts of the capital city Kampala are accused of bankrolling and directing the assailants. However, the NUP denies what it calls trumped-up charges against representatives of an opposition stronghold where Museveni’s party failed to win any legislative seats.

Museveni helped ensure their lengthy detention by stepping up his campaign against bail, which he has long argued should not be available to suspects in capital crimes, including murder and terrorism. Days after the NUP legislators’ arrest, the president piled pressure on judicial officers, police and members of parliament.

‘‘I will not accept the issue of bond by police in cases like this,” Museveni said in October in reference to Ssegirinya and Ssewanyana. “Some judicial officers and the police are doing things, which have no connection with reality. Bail for criminals is a right? How about the rights of victims? People are being killed, but you are defending criminals, suspects of criminal offences?”

We are operating in a system where there is a total break in the rule of law and that is what Museveni wants.

Museveni then called a meeting with the ruling party’s members of parliament urging them to scrap bail for capital offenders from the constitution. The proposal was not agreed to, however.

Still, Museveni’s pressure certainly bore fruit as some judicial officials refused to take up the duo’s bail applications.

The jailed legislators were initially granted bail by the court in late September, but were immediately re-arrested by security forces just outside of prison, a practice not uncommon in Uganda. Several bail applications filed since then have been rejected, while another application filed in the country’s second-highest appellate court remains in limbo.

According to the constitution, the two legislators automatically qualified for bail in February after 180 days of incarceration without trial. State prosecutors’ argument that they could interfere with its investigation if released doesn’t seem to hold water since the probe is now complete. Still, bail remains an unlikely prospect.

Frances Abodo, Uganda’s director of public prosecution, tells The Africa Report that her office will continue arguing against bail for the legislators. “For us as an office, we object to bail,” Abodo says. “It’s a standing order to object to bail, but judicial officers have the discretion to grant or not to grant bail.”

Taming the opposition

Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Kampala, tells The Africa Report that Museveni’s resistance to bail “is largely dependent on his desire to tame the opposition”.

Godber Tumushabe, the executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies in Kampala, says Museveni has built a “vicious dictatorship” that gives him the leeway to act as he pleases.

In addition to the jailing of scores of Bobi Wine supporters, Tumushabe points out that royalist supporters of Uganda’s Rwenzururu kingdom weren’t granted bail until 2020 after more than 200 of them were arrested in 2016 following clashes with government soldiers.

“We are operating in a system where there is a total break in the rule of law,” Tumushabe says. “And that is what Museveni wants.”

It’s not uncommon for opposition politicians to be charged with treason or terrorism during the heated electoral season. Oftentimes, those charges are later dropped.

With the trial of the NUP duo still months away, it’s hard to tell what kind of evidence the state may possess. “Investigations are complete, we have committed them to the high court and we are just waiting for a hearing date,” Abodo tells The Africa Report.

NUP pushes back

NUP Secretary General Lewis Davis Rubongoya denounced the legislators’ incarceration as a lawless move by Museveni.

“These individuals were released by court on bail and immediately abducted at gunpoint,” he tells The Africa Report. “It’s clear that the regime wants to hold onto them as long as possible. We don’t know what exactly the game plan is, but it’s a continuation of the pattern of repression.”

We are not about to beg General Museveni or anyone about the freedom of our people.

About three dozen party members arrested in December 2020 during campaign season are still in detention and face military trial. However, Rubongoya says the real number of jailed party supporters is in the hundreds.

The NUP initially filed a petition with the Supreme Court challenging Museveni’s victory in last year’s election but withdrew it less than a month later, accusing the court of bias.

However, the party is unwilling to boycott the trial of its legislators despite lingering concerns about the impartiality of Uganda’s judiciary. “If you say, we are not going to engage, then to what end?” Rubongoya says. “You will be saying these people should remain in jail forever.”

The other option would be to engage Museveni directly through the Interparty Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD), a platform that brings together all the political parties with representation in parliament. Museveni promised to release 51 Bobi Wine supporters at an IPOD summit in March 2021 following a request by leaders of other political parties. Bobi Wine’s party has so far refused to join the platform.

“We are not about to beg General Museveni or anyone about the freedom of our people,” Rubongoya says.

Mixed bag from parliament

One of the few silver linings for the NUP is that its detained legislators’ seats remain safe, the Ugandan parliament’s director of communications Christ Obore tells The Africa Report.

Legislators who miss 15 consecutive sittings without informing the speaker can be removed from their position. “The speaker is aware of their absence from the house and they have breached no law,” Obore says.

For months, Parliament has rejected the push by opposition legislators to take an interest in getting incarcerated members out on bail. “Parliament can’t interfere [with the] operations of [the] judiciary,” Obore says, “and [the] judiciary can’t interfere [with the] operations of parliament.”

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