Sunday July 10 2016

How Besigye visit ended in strip-search

An illustration of a journalist being asked to take off his

An illustration of a journalist being asked to take off his shoes, socks and belt by Uganda Prisons Service officers. ILLUSTRATION BY COSMAS ARINITWE  

By Ivan Okuda

Dr Kizza Besigye is a valuable chapter in the handbook of Uganda’s politics, at least for the period since 1986 when the current regime took over the mantle of leadership.

His equivalent in Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai, spent the better part of his adult political life throwing rotten eggs at elderly ruler Robert Mugabe’s face. An election happened. Tsvangirai, like most African politicians, was disgruntled, arguing that his victory was robbed. Then compromise happened. Tsvangirai and Mugabe were now feasting on the same looted electoral proceeds.

Enter Raila Odinga. Kenya’s 2007 election was a nasty affair that almost got the current president and his deputy into the International Criminal Court’s gallows. Raila Odinga swore he could not work with thieves, whose itchy and long fingers stirred the post-election violence that claimed thousands of lives and displaced even more thousands.
Besigye has contested in four elections, cried foul, sometimes, as with the 2011 election, turning into a cry baby bitter with what he called a stolen election. His principle, however, stands out. Unlike Odinga and Tsvangirai, Dr Besigye has stuck his sight on the ball, turning away the lures of the opposing team.

High-level scrutiny
This narrative is shared to paint a background of why at Luzira Upper Prison, the four-time presidential candidate is treated the way he is, with the scrutiny only accorded to high-level terrorists.

Visiting Besigye is now as hard as meeting the President. The checks and counter checks get to the nerve.

Nakawa Chief Magistrate James Ereemye Mawanda on June 29 said, “It is high time under the umbrella of the DCC (district chain linked committee) I visited you in prison to see why these concerns keep coming up.”

The politician, charged with treason following a video clip that showed him swearing in as president of Uganda having contested Mr Museveni’s election in the February election, has time and again complained about mistreatment of his visitors in Luzira, squalid detention conditions and limitation on his right to privacy.

So the magistrate ruled he would pay him a visit. What happened on Thursday? The visit suddenly turned into “a routine general visit of detention centres under the Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS).”

The change from a visit to Besigye turned into a general visit in a matter of hours on Thursday morning. Slated to be at the prison at 9am, the magistrate made his way there, driving a Toyota Pajero an hour and half later with the Resident State Attorney, Nakawa in tow.

When the team met top prison officials in the office of the officer in charge, the magistrate was tasked to clear the air by senior superintendent of prisons Apollo Akankunda (representing commissioner general of prisons) saying, “Please clear the air because the information out there is that you have come to see an inmate by the name of Kizza Besigye.”

“No! This is a general visit under JLOS. Don’t mind about the coincidence of what is happening,” the magistrate said, almost pleading with security chiefs who now focused their attention on why the judicial officer was interested in seeing Besigye.

Cornered and stuck with having to turn the visit into a general one, Mr Mawanda allowed Jinja Road DPC Moses Eliau, his team of detectives and prisons officials constitute themselves into a DCC. No Agenda. No chairman of the meeting with the magistrate having to take over the seat of the Regional Prisons Commander Kampala Extra Wilson Magomu so he could take the posture of a chairman.

Interesting as the meeting turned into a lecture theatre on administration justice which was cut short with news from the RPC that Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and Kira Municipality MP Ssemujju Nganda were out with journalists.

To allow them in or not was the question the magistrate, amid protests from the officers, answered in the affirmative. Lukwago and Ssemujju became part of the meeting, the situation now getting awkward with the two politicians admitting they had only come to see Besigye.

“We are going to visit the entire facility and even meet some inmates, you can join us since you are stakeholders. If Besigye is among the inmates we shall see, well and good,” Mawanda said as the two excused themselves from the meeting to see their subject. This reporter tagged along at this point as the magistrate wandered around the prison.

Luzira Upper Prison, Besigye’s new found address, offers an imposing picturesque view of the fresh water Lake Victoria, as one’s eye wanders about the expansive chunk of prison land, it naturally bounces back to the men in clean yellow uniform and officers clad in neat boots and khaki outfits. The officers exude a confidence, level of professionalism and courtesy that betrays the tales of their clients inside the congested and dingy cells.

A visit to a prisoner here is fine if it is not Besigye, the mention of whose name gets the security officers’ antennae at attention. As you enter, a lad with a shaven face smart to the dot, mans a computer where photos of visitors are taken, bio data derived from the identity cards fed into the system and a series of other checks on the identity mounted.

There is a special list for Besigye’s visitors who can only see him for a maximum of 10 minutes, these days one person at a time.

The authorities have taken the checks a notch higher. After this round of checks and counterchecks, that involve sharing the information on the bio data in real time with sister security agencies, as one enters to meet Besigye in a room designated for the purpose, two rooms spared for males and females, with wire mesh and curtain, a nail lock wherein they are checked afresh.

From toe nail to hair follicle, ear pinna to a peep into whatever might be in the ear, under garment to socks, one is asked to remove their shoes, belt and wallet. It is the kind of strictness familiar with international airports.

An officer said the scrutiny is vital as an enemy of the State or someone seeking to harm Besigye can hide dangerous content in the button.

“So if I came with my Observer newspaper ID would you block me from seeing doctor?” Ssemujju asked one of the officers who, after receiving information from officer in charge of Upper Prison about journalists beating the system confiscating notebooks for censuring.

“I would have to consult but we can’t allow journalists here,” a one Ssekijjo replied.

This is strange considering Lukwago’s complaint in the meeting with the officers, “I don’t understand why you allow Petride Mudoola (New Vision) with her iPad and phones into the prison and even Besigye’s cell and you block other journalists.”

Indeed, before Lukwago joined the meeting, Ms Mudoola had been playing a video, secretly recorded, of Dr Besigye at one of his lightest moments with visitors.

Thus, is the thoroughness of the State’s scrutiny of the goings on at Besigye’s new address. The State keeps an eagle eye on every visitor, keeping its ear on the ground for whatever he discusses with them and its heart closer to anything that can cause trouble.

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