Kakwenza Rukirabashaija by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija


On 12 May 2021, the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, started his sixth term in office. He has held power for thirty-five years. The run-up to the elections, held the previous January, was marred by killings, arrests, beatings and disappearances carried out by security forces, as well as the harassment and intimidation of journalists and a five-day internet shutdown. During the election campaign, the Uganda NGO Human Rights Network for Journalists reported more than a hundred cases of human rights violations, including police violence against journalists covering the process. The runner-up, Bobi Wine, and his National Unity Platform party, have alleged widespread electoral fraud.

Since the election, the situation regarding human rights and freedom of expression has continued to deteriorate in Uganda. The latest victim of state repression is the novelist, activist and PEN Uganda board member Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who was arrested on 28 December by security forces. On that day, Rukirabashaija posted on Twitter that gunmen were breaking into his house. PEN later established that the individuals were operatives of the Ugandan security forces. They reportedly forced their way into Rukirabashaija’s house, threatened to break his legs and violently arrested him with neither a warrant nor an explanation. Rukirabashaija was held incommunicado and denied access to his lawyer until 3 January 2022, when he was unexpectedly and briefly taken to his family home, accompanied by security forces, who wanted to search the premises. Afterwards his wife, Eva Basiima, spoke to France 24 about her concerns for her husband’s wellbeing, alleging that he was showing signs of torture:

He was in a bad state … I broke down … His legs were swollen, he looked starved. He was trying to show me under his feet, his soles, they were very badly bruised. He was in handcuffs and wearing the same clothes he was wearing on December 28, when he left us.

PEN believes that Rukirabashaija has been targeted for his online posts criticising President Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, commander of Uganda’s land forces, and is deeply concerned for his safety and wellbeing.

This is the third time that Rukirabashaija has been arbitrarily arrested. On 13 April 2020, he was arrested at his home by officers from the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), who detained him for seven days and interrogated him about his novel The Greedy Barbarian, which explores themes of high-level corruption in a fictional country. Although the interrogation was related to the contents of his novel, on 21 April he was charged with violating Covid-19 health regulations after supposedly ‘doing an act likely to spread the infection of disease’. However, after the state prosecutor failed to appear in court, the Chief Magistrate’s Court dismissed the case and discharged Rukirabashaija.

On 18 September 2020, Rukirabashaija was arrested again at his home by the same officers from the CMI. He was detained for three days without charge, in violation of a Ugandan law which requires that persons be charged or released within forty-eight hours of their arrest. During this period, Rukirabashaija was questioned about his second book, Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, in which he describes the torture inflicted on him by state security agents during his first detention. (He has provided a sworn affidavit describing his mistreatment and is suing the Ugandan authorities for torture.) On this occasion, he was released on police bond pending the completion of an investigation into him for ‘inciting violence and promoting sectarianism’. As part of his bond conditions, he was required to report weekly to a police station 240 kilometres from his home for an indefinite period. At the same time, his family were subjected to unlawful surveillance by state security agents.

Rukirabashaija received the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize International Writer of Courage award in recognition of his work and his bravery in criticising Uganda’s oppressive government. At the time of writing, Rukirabashaija continues to be held incommunicado and without charge by the security forces. Commenting on his latest arrest, Romana Cacchioli, executive director of PEN International, has said:

Criticism of those in power is not a crime. It is horrifying that Kakwenza Rukirabashaija is facing state harassment yet again because of his critical views about his country’s first family. Freedom of expression is protected in the Ugandan constitution and its peaceful exercise does not exclude public or annoying opinions about powerful individuals. Kakwenza has not committed any crime and should be released immediately and unconditionally.

Readers might like to send appeals calling on the Ugandan authorities to release Kakwenza Rukirabashaija and cease all attacks on his right to freedom of expression; seeking assurances that they will guarantee his personal safety and security; and urging them to uphold Uganda’s regional and international obligations to respect, protect and promote freedom of expression and to stop abusing the law and police powers in order to silence dissent.

Appeals to be addressed to:

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni
President of the Republic of Uganda
Email: info@statehouse.go.ug
Twitter: @KagutaMuseveni

His Excellency Julius Peter Moto
High Commissioner
Uganda High Commission
Uganda House
58–59 Trafalgar Square
London WC2N 5DX
Fax: 020 7839 8925
Email: info@ugandahighcomission.co.uk

You can also send messages of solidarity to Rukirabashaija via englishpen.org/pen-writes/penwrites-kakwenza-rukirabashaija

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