Dr Stella Nyanzi, the Makerere University research fellow who was suspended and jailed for criticising the First Lady and her husband, President Museveni, has been declared a prisoner of conscience.
UK-based international human rights campaigner, Amnesty International, made the declaration in a statement issued on Wednesday, making the academic probably the first Ugandan activist, amongst the many others who have similarly drawn the government’s anger, to earn the distinction.
“Amnesty International considers her (Dr Stella Nyanzi) to be a prisoner of conscience, held solely for exercising her right to freedom of expression,” the statement read in parts.
The watchdog also repeated a previous call echoed by another watchdog, Human Rights Watch, for her immediate and unconditional release.
The organisations accuse the government of locking Dr Nyanzi up for expressing critical views and urge it “to comply with Uganda’s obligations under its Constitution and international human rights law to respect, protect and fulfil her rights to liberty and freedom of expression”.
‘Prisoner of conscience’ came into common usage in 1961 when English lawyer Peter Benenson (and a group of fellow lawyers, academics and writers) began campaigning for the release of persons detained for expressing their opinions. That campaign later gave birth to Amnesty International as a worldwide human rights movement.
Web sources say the term can refer to anyone imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion or political views.
“It also refers to those who have been imprisoned and/or persecuted for the non-violent expression of their conscientiously held beliefs,” according to Wikipedia.
However, deputy Director at the government Media Centre, Col Shaban Bantariza, dismissed the two watchdogs’ calls as “very presumptuous”.
“Who is Amnesty International? Do they make laws for Uganda? Every Ugandan, including the President when he retires is subjected to Ugandan laws,” Col Bantazira said yesterday.
In her social media posts, often couched in graphic language, Dr Nyanzi has called out Mr Museveni for, among others, presiding over widespread corruption, human rights abuse, alleged extra-judicial killings, a failing public health care sector, electoral fraud, misplaced government priorities and a deliberate impoverishment of Ugandans.
She was picked up by unidentified people on the night of April 7 at Mackinon Suites in Nakasero moments after addressing members of the Rotary Club of Kampala Metropolitan. Turning up in police custody hours later, she was on April 10 charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication when she allegedly insulted the President and violated his right to privacy under the Computer Misuse Act of 2001.
The crimes included allegedly referring to President Museveni as “a pair of buttocks”.
She was remanded in Luzira prison until April 25 after the State prosecutor sought a court order for her to be subjected to mental evaluation. Her lawyers have protested that this is an attempt to embarrass their client by forcefully committing her to a mental institution.
AI called on other human rights activitists to petition among others the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Mr Kahinda Otafiire and the Inspector General of Police, Gen Kale Kayihura, to protect her from possible torture.
In a statement sent out by the Director for East Africa and the Horn of Africa, Ms Maria Burnett, Human Rights Watch also hit out at government for “violation of the right to free expression - from the government forcibly shutting down radios and newspapers as punishment for critical reporting to government officials seeking to control who can express their views on air”.
“The charges brought against Dr Nyanzi are yet another clear indicator that those who express critical views of the government, particularly the first family, can face its wrath. Nyanzi’s charges should be dropped,” she added.
Col Bantariza, however, insists that the two organisations have opted to examine Dr Nyanzi’s case with bias.
“The rights of both parties should be taken into consideration. As you consider the rights of the party that has been brought to book you should also consider the rights of those that the said party infringed on,” he said.
Build up to Nyanzi’s woes
February 14, 2017. Education minister Janet Museveni tells Parliamentary that government has no money to buy sanitary towels for disadvantaged girl children in honour of presidential election campaign pledge made by her husband. Dr Nyanzi lashes out at her, saying she should not be referred to as a “mother of the nation”
March 7, 2017. Dr Nyanzi grilled at police CID headquarters. She launches campaign to raise funds to buy sanitary towels, raises Shs3.4m.
March 19, 2017. Immigration officials at Entebbe Airport working on the instructions of the police bar Dr Nyanzi from flying to the Netherlands for a conference.
March 27, 2017. Ms Museveni urges Ugandans to stop using boda bodas to ferry children to school. Dr Nyanzi hits back asking Ugandans to “donate a brain” to educate her about conditions in the country.
March 29, 2017. Ms Museveni in a rare interview says she has forgiven Dr Nyanzi. The scholar slams the ‘apology’ saying she had not sought forgiveness.
March 31, 2017. Makerere University Appointments Board directs the vice chancellor, Prof John Sentamu Ddumba, to suspend Dr Nyanzi with immediate effect.