Uganda rights lawyer freed on bail after week in detention

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KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — 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.

Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has been arrested many times and accused of disrupting public order. On Wednesday, his party said he and his campaign team were arrested again while traveling in an island region outside Kampala, the capital.

Wine’s arrest in November trigged deadly riots that were violently quelled by security forces.

Police often use force to break up raucous crowds, sometimes with deadly consequences. A bodyguard for Wine was killed and at least two journalists were injured by police on Sunday.

“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,” a group of United Nations experts on human rights said in a statement on Tuesday.

They added: “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.”

Museveni, for decades a U.S. security ally, has angrily alleged that outside groups are meddling in politics, a claim echoed by other officials. Wine and other opposition figures are accused of being under the influence of Western governments seeking regime change.

Wine has urged the 76-year-old Museveni to retire peacefully, saying his time is over. But Museveni’s supporters say he is their best candidate, citing his popularity in many rural areas.

Electoral authorities on Saturday banned campaign events in some urban areas, including Kampala, citing an urgent need to control the spread of the coronavirus. That decision has been criticized by some who see it as a ploy to prevent opposition figures from displaying their support in areas where the ruling party is not so popular.

Museveni is able to seek more time in office after lawmakers removed the last constitutional obstacle — age limits — to a possible life presidency.

Uganda has not seen a peaceful transfer of power since independence from Britain in 1962.

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