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Museveni critic Nyanzi released from Uganda jail

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
February 20, 2020

Uganda’s High Court overturned Stella Nyanzi’s convictions on the grounds of lack of jurisdiction and fair hearing. Nyanzi had been sentenced to 18 months in jail for "insulting" President Museveni.

Stella Nyanzi
Image: Wilfred Sanya, Centre for legal Aid

Dr. Stella Nyanzi was charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication in 2018 under Uganda's Computer Misuse Act. The rights activist had published a poem on Facebook, in which she insinuated a wish that "the vaginal canal of the acidic pus flooding Esiteri had burned up (the president's) unborn fetus." Esiteri Kokundeka is the name of President Yoweri Miseveni's mother. 

Read more: Ugandan feminist academic in court, remanded in prison

The former Makerere University lecturer is the proponent of "radical rudeness," a Ugandan political strategy of using colorful language and invective to unsettle politicians. Nyanzi has been one of Museveni's fiercest critics. She won the 2019 PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression.

Stella Nyanzi in a courtroom
Nyanzi served prison time in 2017 for describing President Museveni "a pair of buttocks" Image: Reuters/J. Akena

Following her 2018 conviction for cyber harassment and offensive communication, the American Bar Association's Center for Human Rights revealed in a report that Nyanzi's trial was marred by irregularities and violations of her rights. It noted that the court had failed to provide the defense with adequate time to call and present witnesses.

High Court Judge Henry Peter overturned the conviction on Thursday, stating that the magistrates court had lacked the jurisdiction to try Nyanzi and that she had not been given a fair hearing.

DW's Alex Gitta at the High Court in Kampala said their were lound cheers when Nyanzi's release was announced. She left the courtroom briefly to address the media, only to be ushered back inside by security officials, reportedly to sign her release papers.

"Policemen pounced on Stella Nyanzi and fired shots in the air to stop the crowd from overpowering them," Gitta said. Images were later posted on Twitter of Nyanzi waving from the roof of an SUV driving off. 

Nyanzi had turned up in court in her usual jovial mood and wearing a flowery African printed dress. She was reading a book titled 'No Roses From My Mouth' while waiting for the judge, who was late by more than two hours.

"I am glad to be here, I am glad to be released," Nyanzi told reporters outside the High Court.

"Why was I in prison for more than one year? I want to know what is wrong with the courts, which abuse the rights of accused people?"

A visibly angry Nyanzi said she would not tone down her criticism of President Museveni and his government. "How long are Ugandans going to be silent because they are going to fear accusations of offence?"

Read more: Academic Stella Nyanzi making waves in Uganda

PEN Banner - winners for 2019
Nyanzi won the 2019 PEN International Award for Freedom of ExpressionImage: pen

Nyanzi was fired from her position at Makerere University in the wake of her 2018 conviction and placed under a travel ban. One of her former colleagues at the insitution predicts that Nyanzi will court more trouble in future. "I think Stella Nyanzi is challenging orthodoxy, and when you challenge orthodoxy you expect certain consequences," Professor Mwambutsya Ndebetsya told DW.

"People like Galileo who were critical thinkers because they challenged orthodoxy had to meet the wrath of the then established catholic church and other authorities. That is what is likely to befall Stella Nyanzi." 

Nyanzi's series of Facebook posts are sometimes sexually explicit. In 2017, she described the president as "a pair of buttocks" and the first lady, who is also Uganda's education minister, as "empty-brained."

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