MPs including the Afropop musician Bobi Wine are allegedly being tortured by the Museveni regime. The Magnitsky Act can curb this shocking abuse
In a country with such a complex and often conflict-prone history, acts of political violence and intimidation are common enough to be unremarkable. But this past week in Uganda has been exceptional, as outrage spills out into the streets over the government’s brutal arrests of four members of parliament and dozens of their supporters. Among those arrested was the rising political star Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, a widely loved 36-year-old former Afropop musician popularly known as Bobi Wine. The state’s treatment of Wine, including credible allegations of torture, has prompted days of massive protests in the capital, Kampala, which have been violently suppressed by the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) with tear gas and live ammunition.
President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, has breezily dismissed the treatment of Wine, calling the whole affair “fake news”. How the international community responds to Uganda in this moment is crucial – and the ruling party is betting on short attention spans and crisis fatigue to move on to other concerns. But the next generation of Ugandans deserves a more serious international response, as Wine’s plight is quickly becoming a symbol of the deplorable state of human rights in the country.
Although Wine was originally arrested over “obstructing a motorcade”, after stones were thrown at the president’s car, more charges were slapped together, including illegal possession of a firearm (although no such firearm was ever found). Despite being a matter for the civil courts, he was put into military detention until, on Thursday, the state dropped the gun charges – only to have him re-arrested and charged with treason along with the other three MPs. Wine is in jail because of who he is, not anything he may have done.
Over the course of his detention, Wine has allegedly been subjected to horrific abuse. According to accounts by his family, his face, torso, legs and genitals have been subjected to repeated heavy punches and kicks by UPDF soldiers. He has informed his wife that he has been given so many injections of unknown drugs by unknown people that he lost count, and consciousness, awakening only when he was wheeled into his arraignment hearing on 16 August – disoriented and unable to stand or speak.
Even Wine’s military doctors are said to have told him that it is likely he has suffered significant kidney damage, while the judge at that hearing ordered that he be granted his constitutionally guaranteed right to medical care. Many of his injuries may have a lifelong impact. But despite this evidence of abuse, the government continues to insist that he is in rude health, not a scratch or bruise on him.
Wine is in many ways an unlikely figure to become a symbol of opposition. He is new to politics, only winning his seat as an independent last year, and is not tied to one of the major opposition parties. There are many other longtime challengers in the opposition who have suffered similarly for years. Kizza Besigye, of the Forum for Democratic Change, has been attacked, threatened, physically abused and sent before military courts many times – in fact, he was arrested again hours after Wine was charged with treason.
His also may not be the worst case. Francis Zaake, the Mityana MP, was arrested on the same day, and UPDF agents allegedly tied a rope around his neck and beat him unconscious. He’s been unable to leave his hospital bed because of dislocated discs in his back and a severely injured neck. In September last year, the MP Betty Nambooze had her spine snapped in an attack by state agents – and that happened inside parliament. The stories go on and on.
Nevertheless, Wine’s case has captivated national attention in a unique way. As the “ghetto president”, Wine has unprecedented appeal among young people, allowing many disenchanted Ugandans to identify with him and participate in the political sphere. If he is dragged off, beaten, and tortured by UPDF thugs, his supporters feel it – and they will not back down.
It is the responsibility of the international community to take action to halt the human rights abuses in Uganda. Uganda is in clear violation of the international covenant on civil and political rights, the UN convention against torture, the African Charter of Human Rights of the African Union, and a number of other international treaties. It is an important moment to demand the immediate release of these political prisoners, the dropping of all false charges, and the reinstatement of their basic political rights to free association and freedom of expression. Our law firm, acting on behalf of Wine, is calling for the application of the Global Magnitsky Act against state officials responsible for these human rights violations.
The Magnitsky Act, passed by the US Congress in 2016, in the wake of the murder of the Russian whistleblower-lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, allows for visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of significant corruption. These types of individualised sanctions are a very effective deterrent against future attacks on human rights, while limiting the collateral damage to innocent citizens.
In recent years Uganda has avoided consequences for its repressive conduct – partly because the country is seen as a reliable security partner (contributing thousands of troops to Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere), and partly because of its stability as an investment destination. But the viability of these relationships is in jeopardy when rule of law is so brazenly discarded. The cause is just – we just need to summon the political will to bring positive change to Uganda.
• Robert Amsterdam is the founding partner of Amsterdam & Partners LLP, which represents Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (aka Bobi Wine).