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The Ugandan Government Must Dismiss Charges Against Leading Civil Liberties Lawyer

By Diane Bernabei (AIUSA Military, Security and Police Transfers Coordination Group)

On Wednesday, December 22, 2020, plain-clothed Ugandan security forces abducted Nicholas Opiyo while he was eating lunch at a restaurant in Kamwokya near Kampala in Uganda. They held him incommunicado for more than 24 hours. He was held at the Special Investigations Division in Kireka, a detention center in capital of Uganda, Kampala, notorious for its mistreatment of detainees, and for almost two days was not charged, released, or presented in court.

Nicholas Opiyo is not a criminal; he is a leading human rights lawyer who has worked tirelessly to defend civil liberties in a country that deprives LGBTQ communities of basic freedoms and criminalizes same-sex relationships. In 2013 Opiyo founded Chapter Four Uganda, a civil liberties organization with a mission to provide legal responses to the abuse of civil liberties in defense of human rights for all, where he is now the Executive Director. His achievements range from protecting pro-democracy activists to successfully arguing against the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2013 to advocating for laws criminalizing torture.

Unfortunately, his civil rights work and human rights advocacy has made him a target of the administration of Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986 and whose government has perpetuated policies and actions that target pro-democracy and anti-corruption activists and that limit the civil liberties of LGBTQ communities. Opiyo’s arrest is part of a long string of actions taken by the Ugandan security forces clearly meant to intimidate and silence Opiyo in the run-up to the presidential election, which resulted in a highly disputed victory for Museveni.

Opiyo routinely faces death threats, verbal attacks and harassment. Ugandan security forces raided his home in September 2020, stealing the technology he relies on to do his work — his iPhone can be traced to the Mbuya Hill military intelligence headquarters. His arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detainment are clear escalations in a series of actions by the state meant to intimidate and deter him and other human rights activists from doing their work. He was charged for money-laundering, an accusation brought against him with no evidence. This unfounded charge is nothing more than a malicious attempt to conveniently restrict Opiyo’s work in the weeks before the election.

Nicholas Opiyo is not the only human rights activist in Uganda to have been arrested on false charges in the run-up to this January’s presidential election in Uganda. Many others were arrested and put in jail on unfounded charges. Herbert Dakasi, Esomu Obure, Anthony Odur and Hamid Tenywa were also arrested on December 22 and detained with no access to their families or lawyers. On 23 December 2020, the police released the four others on police bond but kept Opiyo on the trumped-up charges. There are hundreds of people that have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, many without being tried in court, solely for participating in peaceful political assembly or exercising their right to freedom of expression and association.

Amnesty International calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all those arbitrarily arrested and that unfounded charges against them be dropped immediately, this includes Nicholas Opiyo and the four who were arrested together with him. Amnesty International calls upon states to consider the Ugandan government’s continuing and escalating human rights violations before entering into security agreements with its government. Amnesty International also calls on the Financial Action Task Force to take action against the Ugandan government’s abuse of money-laundering and terrorism allegations for political purposes and for the purposes of restricting civic space in Uganda.

Finally Amnesty International calls on the Government of Uganda to stop persecuting human rights defenders and to stop restricting civic space. Intimidation, repression and political violence have no place in any country.

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