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.