ARTICLE 19 condemns the Ugandan security forces’ arbitrary detention of former opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye at his house after he announced plans to mobilise protests over the soaring cost of living and the succession politics in the country. ARTICLE 19 calls on the government of Uganda to uphold his rights to freedom of expression, protest and liberty.
Dr. Kizza Besigye is the former leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) political party. Since 2001, his candidacy as president has been contested at least four times. According to reports, on 12 May 2022, security forces apprehended Besigye on his way to Kampala from his home in Wakiso district. The detention occurred just moments after he addressed journalists at his home regarding his intention to launch a campaign to mobilise citizens to protest. Security forces subsequently surrounded his house. Despite Besigye only speaking of intentions to plan a protest, the Kampala Metropolitan Police spokesperson reportedly told journalists on 16 May that the police had taken action because Besigye did not follow the law governing protests, which requires police notification of the protest. The police spokesman added that security forces would remain in place until they felt that Dr Besigye was no longer a threat.
“While Uganda’s Public Order Management Act requires an individual or group to tender a notification to an authorised officer before carrying out any form of protest, it is often misconstrued to mean seeking permission to carry out the protest, inadvertently granting the authorised officer wide discretion to prohibit public meetings and gatherings. The police therefore use the Act to justify the blocking, restricting and dispersal of peaceful meetings and gatherings,” noted Mugambi Kiai, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa.
The security forces detained Besigye for five days without access to his lawyers or doctors. He was not granted access to his lawyers until 17 May 2022.
Uganda’s human rights obligations
Ugandan law and international human rights instruments binding on the country prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention. The constitution guarantees the protection of personal liberty and provides that an arrested or detained person should be kept in a place authorised by law. The constitution further provides that detainees are entitled to reasonable access to next of kin, lawyers, and medical treatment.
Further, according to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), an arrest or detention is considered arbitrary if the individual has been arrested as a result of the exercise of their rights, including the right to freedom of expression, association, assembly and the right to participate in public affairs. These rights are also guaranteed by Uganda’s Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. They may be subject to narrowly-tailored limitations, but only where provided by law, for a legitimate aim and if necessary and proportionate.
Further, the African Commission’s guidelines on freedom of association and assembly in Africa underscore that protest is a right, for which no prior authorisation should be needed. The rationale for notification is for the police to facilitate the exercise of this right and to take the necessary measures to protect public safety and the rights of other citizens, and must not be misconstrued as an obligation on those who wish to protest to seek permission from the police. Lack of prior notification does not make an assembly unlawful.
ARTICLE 19 calls on authorities in Uganda to:
- Immediately and unconditionally release Dr.Besigye from arbitrary detention and commit to addressing the legitimate concerns raised instead of persecuting him;
- Desist from blocking protests by abusing the notification regime as set out in the Public Order Management Act(2013); and
- Amend the Public Order Management Act (2013) – especially Article 6, which gives security officers wide discretion to prohibit public gatherings and meetings – through a transparent and inclusive system that engages all relevant stakeholders, including civil society, to ensure that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are protected and promoted in line with international standards.