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Uganda: 'Human rights defenders are being targeted'

January 13, 2021

Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo describes an ever-worsening atmosphere for civil society, its defenders and journalists ahead of the presidential election.

Nicholas Opiyo, Träger Deutscher Afrika Preis 2017
Image: DW/D. Pelz

DW: How can you describe the mood in the country at the moment? 

Nicholas Opiyo: It doesn't feel as the country is going into an election. It feels as if the country is at war. When you hear the rhetoric of security officials, when you see the city's amount of deployment, it doesn't feel like an election. We have never seen this before in previous elections: Cases of people disappearing every night from poor neighborhoods, mainly opposition supporters. Cases of civil society organizations being intimidated or arrested. Cases of media being harassed and told not to use certain material. The city is apprehensive. People are fearing. Many people I know have sent their families out of the country or to the countryside for fear that there might be violence. 

It looks like your role as rights defenders has diminished. You cannot say anything anymore, no one can listen to you. Is that how you feel at the moment? 

I feel that human rights defenders are being targeted, and the reason they are being targeted is that they have some legitimacy. (...) They are able to hold people to account. In order to stop them from doing what they are doing, they are being deliberately targeted by this state. Several network organizations have had their bank accounts frozen. 

Uganda | Befragung Menschenrechtsaktivistin | Nicholas Opiyo
Activists and lawyers to Nicholas Opiyo at Kireka station where activist Nicholas Opiyo was being held for interrogation on money-loundering allegations.Image: Lubega Emmanuel/DW

You were arrested and spent some days in jail. Your bank accounts were frozen. Where does this leave your work and your organization and even the quest to defend human rights in Uganda? 

First of all, the arrest is not about me. I think this is a continuation of a pattern of targeting civil society leaders and actors. Several other people have faced and are going to face similar situations like myself. But we remain determined. 

The things that I saw in prison, the horrific stories of human rights abuse I heard from people who were detained, have only helped me be more emboldened. It might be difficult to do it, but we'll try as much as we can, using all means and resources, to continue to defend human rights, because our work is most needed in times such as this, when authorities seek to abuse rights and silence people. And I'm happy to pay the ultimate price if that is the cause. 

Uganda | Opposition | Bobi WIne
Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulany alias Bobi WineImage: REUTERS

What kind of stories did the people you found in prison tell you? 

They told of severe torture, largely of young people who are supporting the opposition. They were being brought in in large numbers with physical injuries. They were recounting stories of being attacked by soldiers, being beaten at the hands of soldiers and being charged in military courts for offenses such as wearing a red beret, which the army seems to think is above the army. We have had stories of people who had disappeared for months. Before I was arrested, we were looking for them, and when I was arrested I came face to face with them. People who have spent months in pre-trial detention in a police cell, all the while being tortured, beaten and denied access to their families and lawyers. Little wonder they didn't want me to stay in prison long. 

Why do you think the Ugandan government has resorted to these tactics of violence, not only against political opponents, but even journalists? 

They need to turn off the light to do what they have to do and journalists who shine a light on their actions become the first line of target. They do not want the international community to know what's happening. Many of them are now targeted with sanctions by many countries across the world. They do not want to be identified as perpetrators of human rights violations. And so, if you turn your lens on them, if you turn your microphone on them, you become a target. And that's why journalists are suffering. There's nothing wrong with journalists. It is an attempt by those involved in violating the rights to hide what they are doing. As for human rights activists like myself, we have been documenting human rights violations and taken people to court. These individuals want to destroy any evidence of their involvement in extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights abuses. 

Uganda Bobi Wine
Security forces block the street leading to the Electoral Commission during a visit by Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine in KampalaImage: Ronald Kabuubi/AP Photo/picture alliance

And how would you describe the election in Uganda come January 14? What will be your role as human rights defenders? 

Elections are determined as to whether they are free and fair not by what happens on polling day but by the events leading up to it. So far, the events leading up to the election point to a grossly unfair election, an election whose result is predetermined. We know who the winner is going to be, we know who will be declared the head of state. 

And who's that? 

President Yoweri Museveni will be declared the winner of the election regardless of the results. And so, the elections and the way they have been conducted cannot meet the standards of a free and fair election by any measure. I think that many people are going to get involved in election observation, they will be documenting what they see with the purpose of leaving a record and of challenging the outcome of the election in one form or another. 

Uganda: Fears of more violence

Facebook was recently blocked; some accounts purportedly belonging to bloggers in the NRM camp were blocked by Facebook. It's a hot topic globally. What do you have to say about it? 

It has been a long time coming because the Ministry of Information had created a factory of bots, of people who knew how to trail and abuse people online. They created a system that would manipulate public conscience and public debate. And gladly, Facebook was able to identify that and block these accounts. These accounts should have been blocked a long time ago because they distorted the quality of the debate. They create artificial debate online to try and paint a picture that is not the truth. So I'm really happy that Facebook took that step, and I think they should do so for all manners of debate, not just elections. There are discussions about the LGBTI community in this country that are very toxic, being created by these kinds of groups.  

The interview was conducted by Isaac Mugabi.