Ugandan pop star and government critic free on bail

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By Associated Press

KAMPALA: To chants of “People power! Our power!” Ugandan pop star turned government critic Bobi Wine was freed on bail Monday, ending days of incarceration during which he and some of his co-accused allege they were tortured by security forces.

The 36-year-old lawmaker, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, was on crutches as he left the courthouse in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu. He claims he was injured by severe beatings by security forces while he was in detention.

Ssentamu had been detained since Aug. 14.

A judge freed him alongside others who are similarly charged with treason for their alleged roles in an incident in which President Yoweri Museveni’s motorcade was pelted with stones.

Scores of his supporters outside the courtroom cheered when he came out of the courthouse. They shouted the people’s power slogan which had been popularized by Ssentamu. Ssentamu left the courthouse in an ambulance headed for a private hospital in the capital, Kampala.

“We are much stronger and greater in spirit than we were before,” Gerald Karuhanga, one of Ssentamu’s co-accused, told local broadcaster NTV after being freed, alleging torture.

Ssentamu was initially charged before a military court with illegal possession of firearms and ammunition. On Thursday those charges were withdrawn and he was immediately re-arrested and charged before a magistrate with the more serious offense of treason.

Ssentamu’s arrest came after he was campaigning on Aug. 13 in an election to choose a lawmaker in the northwestern town of Arua.

Museveni also was in Arua at the time, campaigning for a rival candidate who eventually lost.

While the president was departing, authorities said, his motorcade was pelted with stones by people believed to be supporters of Ssentamu and the candidate he backed, Kassiano Wadri.

Ssentamu’s driver was shot and killed that evening, allegedly by security forces.

Authorities have been under pressure to free Ssentamu, who is challenging the long rule of Museveni by appealing to young people who despair over the lack of jobs and other opportunities. His supporters, citing his success in helping opposition candidates to win elections across the country, are urging him to run for president in 2021.

The treason case could drag on for months and maybe even years, potentially crippling Ssentamu’s efforts as an anti-government activist.

A trial date has not yet been fixed for the treason charges. Ssentamu and his co-accused will still be required to appear before a magistrate’s court on Aug. 30. At some point the magistrate, having considered the evidence, will then decide if the case should be committed to the High Court for trial.

The jailing of Ssentamu drew street protests at home as well as outrage from top musicians around the world. He alleges severe torture while in detention.

Another lawmaker, Francis Zaake, is hospitalized with serious injuries he sustained in detention after being arrested over the Arua incident.

“These people should never have been tortured, should never have been terrorized,” said Kizza Besigye, an opposition politician and four-time presidential contender who witnessed court proceedings Monday.

The treason charges are “a disgrace,” he said.

At least two of Ssentamu’s co-accused fainted during court proceedings, and one of them had required resuscitation, Besigye told reporters.

The government denies the allegations of torture.

Museveni, a U.S. ally on regional security, took power by force in 1986 and has since been elected five times. Although he has campaigned on his record of establishing peace and stability, some worry that those gains are being eroded the longer he stays in power.

The 74-year-old Museveni is now able to seek re-election in 2021 because parliament passed legislation last year removing a clause in the constitution that had prevented anyone over 75 from holding the presidency. Ssentamu publicly opposed that decision.

Museveni recently has accused “unprincipled politicians” of luring young people into rioting.