A prominent rights attorney jailed in Uganda over criminal charges was freed on bail on Wednesday amid intense pressure from the international community and watchdog groups urging authorities to respect human rights ahead of elections in January.
Nicholas Opiyo had spent a week in prison, charged with money laundering after officials queried a $340,000 transfer into a bank account held by the rights group he leads. His lawyers say he is innocent, and his group, Chapter Four Uganda, calls the charges frivolous.
Opiyo has represented pro-democracy activists, opposition figures and minority groups. He is notably one of a few lawyers known to represent homosexuals in a country where same-sex relations are criminalized.
The U.S. had called for his immediate release. Representatives of foreign embassies sat in the courtroom as his bail application was heard. He appeared via video link from the maximum-security prison.
Critics of the government insist Opiyo is targeted because of his work tracking alleged rights abuses by security forces ahead of elections on Jan. 14.
President Yoweri Museveni, who has held power since 1986, faces a strong challenge from popular singer and lawmaker Bobi Wine, who has rallied impoverished young people.
UN human rights experts* today expressed serious concerns about the violence ahead of Uganda’s presidential election, and urged authorities to put an end to the arrest, detention and judicial harassment of political opponents, civil society leaders and human rights defenders.
Media outlets have reported that three journalists were hurt on Sunday after being hit by tear gas canisters in Masaka. Opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, said one of his bodyguards died after being hit by a military truck later the same day. The military has denied this, saying he fell from a speeding car.
“We are gravely concerned by the election-related violence, the excessive use of force by security personnel, as well as the increasing crackdown on peaceful protesters, political and civil society leaders and human rights defenders,” said the experts.
“Since the publication of the guidelines on the conduct of elections during COVID-19 in June by the Uganda Electoral Commission, we have witnessed gradual shrinking of civic space, and misuse and abuse of health-related restrictions to curb dissent in the country ahead of the election on 14 January. Time and again, we have emphasised that the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as a pretext to infringe on fundamental freedoms.”
On 23 December 2020, Nicholas Opiyo, a prominent human rights defender, was arrested along with four other individuals. According to the official statement made by the authorities, he is accused of money laundering and will be tried accordingly. Opiyo was involved in the defence of four NGOs whose assets were frozen on 12 December by the government on charges of financing terrorism, and was vocal against actions taken by the State security forces amidst the electoral context. The Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET), the National NGO Forum, the Women International Peace Centre, and the Alliance of Finance Election Monitoring (AFEM) have been active in election campaigns encouraging the participation of women and youth.
“Combatting terrorism should never be used as a justification to undermine the credibility of associations or to unduly impede their legitimate work,” the UN experts said. “We are gravely concerned about this attack on human rights defenders, civil society actors and those who defend them. The prosecution of Nicholas Opiyo and other lawyers, as well as the judicial harassment of those who express dissent, appear to be strictly related to the electoral context, and fictitious charges being used to justify them.”
The restrictions on freedom of expression, on access to information, and intimidation and surveillance of journalists, as well as detentions, trials and sentencing of human rights defenders, lawyers, and intellectuals in China, are growing and continue to be a source of great concern.
On 28 December 2020, Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court sentenced Ms Zhang Zhan to four years of imprisonment for ‘picking quarrels and stirring up trouble’. Prior to her detention, Ms Zhang Zhan had been reporting about the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan.
According to credible sources, Ms Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated. It is crucial that she receives adequate medical assistance.
On 13 December, the Jiangsu Higher People’s Court upheld the first instance court decision on the case of prominent human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, confirming a sentence of four years’ imprisonment, without giving to his defence lawyers the possibility to present a defence statement in accordance with China’s Criminal Procedure Law.
The European Union calls for the immediate release of Ms Zhang Zhan, of Mr Yu Wensheng, and of other detained and convicted human rights defenders, including Li Yuhan, Huang Qi, Ge Jueping, Qin Yongmin, Gao Zhisheng, Ilham Tohti, Tashi Wangchuk, Wu Gan, Liu Feiyue, as well as all those who have engaged in reporting activities in the public interest.
Another organization of lawyers has prodded the government to take action against the continued killings of lawyers in the country.
“Centerlaw joins the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, civil society organizations, and the families of those slain in condemning all killings and violence against lawyers,” Centerlaw said in a statement issued on Monday, Dec. 28.
“With our halls of justice gripped in terror, Centerlaw calls on the Supreme Court, the Department of Justice, the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Philippine National Police to ensure that thorough, impartial, and focused investigations are carried out and to exact speedy accountability for the slain sentinels of justice,” it urged.
Centerlaw issued the statement after the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) revealed last week that the remains recovered in Capas, Tarlac back in October 30 was that of missing retired Court of Appeals (CA) Justice Normandie Pizarro.
“The killing of prosecutors, judges, and lawyers has become so commonplace that it has resulted in a frighteningly established expectation of news that lawyers being killed is a normal occurrence,” the group lamented.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is celebrated for her bold and unwavering work to strengthen human rights adherence in Iran which has not only served her fellow Iranians well but also remains an inspiration to human rights defenders around the world. The sacrifices she and her family have endured in defense of human rights have been abominable, yet she carries on firmly in solemn conviction that what she seeks is just and that human dignity is paramount.
Advancing Human Rights in Iran and Inspiring Human Rights Defenders WorldwideThe Center is pleased to honor Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer who was recently sentenced to more than 38 years’ imprisonment and 148 lashes because of her work defending women’s rights and protesting against Iran’s forced veiling laws, for her stalwart courage and effectiveness in pursuit of a just rule of law in Iran.
Ugandan officials today extended the pre-trial detention of human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo by scheduling his case in the courtroom of a judge without authority to grant him bail.
Opiyo was arrested Dec. 22 on charges of money laundering and was remanded to prison over the Christmas weekend.
He appeared by video today in a Kampala magistrate’s court where the presiding officer had no jurisdiction to receive his plea or grant him release on bail. Currently he is to remain in Kitalya Maximum Security Prison at least until Jan. 11, when a further court hearing is scheduled.
Opiyo’s lawyers have applied for bail in the High Court. A bail hearing there has been set for Dec. 30.
Chapter Four, the human rights advocacy organization that Opiyo leads, stated that US $340,000 that police labeled “proceeds of crime” in their money-laundering charge were simply “a grant from one of Chapter Four’s reputable recurring and long-standing donors who legally support Chapter Four’s work of promoting and protecting human rights.”
Opiyo and Chapter Four are longtime supporters of LGBTQ+ rights in Uganda. Opiyo also represents presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), who seeks to unseat Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in next month’s election.
Numerous human rights organizations have issued statements of support for Opiyo and have called for his release.
Surendra Gadling, now in jail in the Bhima-Koregoan violence case, is a human rights lawyer and Dalit rights activist based in Nagpur. He is known for taking up cases of extra-judicial killings, police excesses and atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis in Gadchiroli and Gondia districts of Maharashtra.
All his life he fought valiantly to defend the rights of the people belonging to marginalized sections of society who were persecuted by the State or people who would stand up for their rights and consequently were targeted by the ruling elite but in the end he paid a price for his magnanimity.
He is considered to be an expert in special laws like Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, laws under which rampant violation of rights of tribals goes on in this country.
He represented Arun Ferreira, also in jail in the Bhima-Koregaon case, between 2007 and 2012. Until his own arrest, he was also handling the case of a wheelchair-bound Delhi University Professor G.N. Saibaba, now convicted for his Naxal links. Surendra Gandling is known to take up most of his cases pro bono.
While working as an apprentice in the railways, Surendra started the Awhan Natya Manch, which would organise cultural evenings in the bastis of Nagpur and engage in conversations around rights and oppression. He has also been a member of the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, the Committee for Release of Political Prisoners and served as General Secretary of the Indian Association of Peoples’ Lawyers. The IAPL describes him as ‘..an iconic example to many dalit lawyers defending their oppressed communities.’
Gadling was part of an independent fact-finding team that probed the encounter killing of 40 alleged Maoists by the police in Gadhchiroli in April 2018. He has also been a voice against persecution of the lawyers by the police machinery. In this context he also visited Kashmir as part of a team. He conducted a fact-finding mission in Chhattisgarh and brought out a report about persecution and harassment of lawyers who take up cases pertaining to tribals trapped in UAPA cases.
He was also part of the Bhima Koregaon fact-finding team. Gadling has been deeply involved with issues related to backward communities, in defense of reservation and in defense of the independence of the judiciary. He has been instrumental in spreading awareness and organising public meetings on various human rights issues.
Among the persons Gadling defended, many were charged with UAPA/Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and labeled as terrorists or Naxalites. Some of these names will definitely be part of history for their contribution towards society. In the close to 25 years of legal career he was able to get acquittal for all his clients, except in three cases, who were charged under these draconian laws, no mean achievement considering the powerful state paraphernalia that he was arrayed against.
Among the persons Gadling defended, many were charged with UAPA/Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and labeled as terrorists or NaxalitesBy deploying the heaviest of police bandobast, cordoning off the court premises, issuing alerts on the court hearing days, the police would often throw its weight to intimidate him and his clients in many of the cases he was involved with.
Despite all this, Gadling has been successful in convincing the courts of law about the innocence of his clients and in the discarding of many ridiculous allegations. He has fearlessly defended many even when there was strong objection from bar associations, negative publicity in media and open threats from investigating bodies.
We continue to demand that the fabricated and malicious charges be dropped.
Following his appearance before Nakawa Magistrates Court on December 24, 2020, to face money laundering charges under section 3 (c) of the Anti-Money Laundering Act, Nicholas Opiyo was remanded to Kitalya Government Prison, where he is currently detained. Nicholas’s family and the Chapter Four board have been in touch with him, and he informed them that he is in good health and being treated decently by the authorities.
Chapter Four unequivocally reiterates that the unsubstantiated allegations against Nicholas are a fabrication, false, and will be proven to be baseless. As previously stated, the grant of 340,000 USD mentioned in the charge sheet is a routine grant that Chapter Four Uganda has received for the last five years from one of its reputable and long-standing donors. The grant is applied to lawful purposes – defending fundamental rights and freedoms. We further note that the grant in question is on Chapter Four’s bank account and not on Nicholas’s personal bank account. The organization’s bank accounts have not been questioned before, during previous years when this same grant was received. Chapter Four pays taxes to the Government of Uganda and has never defaulted on this statutory obligation.
While regrettable, the actions of the State regarding Nicholas’s treatment are not surprising. We are convinced that he faces false and malicious charges because of his bold, unapologetic conviction and tireless work towards upholding and defending the constitutionally guaranteed human rights. Nicholas and Chapter Four will be vindicated. Chapter Four remains firmly committed to its core beliefs and mission – justice and equity for all, without discrimination.
The Chinese authorities have stepped-up arbitrary detentions of journalists and activists reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic and other issues, or criticizing the government, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the beginning of December 2020, the authorities have carried out new detentions of journalists and activists without providing any credible information to suggest that these individuals have committed legally recognizable offenses. They should drop all baseless charges and immediately and unconditionally release those wrongfully held.
A year later, the prominent human rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi remain in detention facing charges of “inciting subversion.” The authorities detained Chang Weiping, another lawyer, again in October after releasing him in January. He has been held under “residential surveillance” at an unknown location, a form of enforced disappearance in which police can hold individuals in undisclosed locations for up to six months. Other participants including Zhang Zhongshun, Dai Zhenya, Li Yingjun, and Chen Jiaping have been released on bail.
“The slew of detentions of those who speak out will only further impede the flow of information about the situation in China,” Wang said. “Governments around the world should press Beijing to release wrongfully detained journalists and activists immediately.”