A diplomatic row appeared to be brewing yesterday as government indicated it is protesting the weekend visits to Nakasongola Prison by diplomats from European Union nations. Government said it is investigating the prison authorities in Nakasongola for allowing four diplomats from the Irish and Dutch embassies to visit jailed opposition leaders Kizza Besigye and Norbert Mao.
The two opposition leaders were remanded for allegedly inciting violence, assaulting a police officer and participating in unlawful assembly following the ongoing walk-to-work campaign over high fuel and commodity prices. They deny the charges.
Information Minister Kabakumba Masiko refused to name the diplomats who visited the two politicians on Friday but said their visit was “irregular”. She told journalists at the government’s Media Centre that the envoys’ visit should have been cleared by the ministries of foreign affairs, internal affairs, and Uganda Prisons Services.
“As far as the government of Uganda is concerned, there was no such clearance before the diplomats went to Nakasongola Government Prison which was irregular,” she said. “We are however, currently addressing this matter at the diplomatic level.” But Foreign Affairs ministry spokesperson Moses Kasujja said no formal complaint has been made to the two embassies. “We haven’t written to them but we believe it would have been better if they had written to us before the visit in order to avoid a diplomatic row,” he said.
The Political and Public Affairs officer at the Netherlands Embassy, Mr Melle Leenstra, also said they were not aware that the government was upset. “I am not aware of any complaint,” he said in a phone interview. The press and information officer at the Delegation of the European Union, Mr Simon Kasyate, said “no comment” in response to an email query sent to him over the matter.
During the same press conference, Commissioner General of Prisons Johnson Byabashaija said they would reprimand the prison officers who allowed the diplomats into Nakasongola. “I did not clear this visit and I’m wondering how they accessed the premises. We are therefore considering administrative actions against these officers because we think they did something wrong,” he said.
Mr Byabashaija defended the detention of Besigye and Mao in Nakasongola, claiming the walk-to-work demonstrators were planning to attack Luzira prisons and free all the prisoners. “I have the powers to transfer a prisoner and did this legally and for the safety of Norbert Mao,” he said.
Paying the piper
Ireland and The Netherlands are the biggest funders of the Justice Law and Order Sector and reports indicate they received a special invitation from the Uganda Prisons Service to go to Nakasongola.
Dr Besigye will appear in a Nakasongola court today for bail application while Mr Mao, who considers himself a “prisoner of conscience” remains on remand until May 2.