'Tortured' author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija flees to exile

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija (C), a prominent Ugandan satirical writer and an outspoken government critic appears in court on charges of offensive communication involving insulting the country's ruling family in Kampala, Uganda in early February 2022. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • The novelist was detained shortly after Christmas and later charged with "offensive communication" in a case that has raised international concern, with the European Union among those calling for a "comprehensive investigation" into rights abuses in Uganda.

A prominent Ugandan novelist who was charged with insulting President Yoweri Museveni and his son has fled the country out of fear for his life, his lawyer said Wednesday.

"He has left Uganda," Eron Kiiza, the lawyer for Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, said.

He said his client, who claims to have been tortured behind bars, was seeking medical treatment abroad for the injuries inflicted.

"He fears poisoning as a result of his injuries and the injections of unknown substances he was subjected to," Kiiza said.

He said the 33-year-old Rukirabashaija, who last year won an international award for persecuted writers, had told him he was in neighbouring Rwanda and was aiming to reach Europe.

Rukirabashaija was detained shortly after Christmas and later charged with "offensive communication" in a case that has raised international concern, with the European Union among those calling for an investigation into rights abuses in Uganda.

He appeared on television at the weekend to reveal welts criss-crossing his back and scars on other parts of his body.

"They beat me with batons, everywhere. You collapse, they beat you, you get up, you go into unconsciousness," he said in the interview with NTV Uganda.

The charges against him relate to unflattering Twitter comments about Museveni and his powerful son Muhoozi Kainerugaba.

He described Kainerugaba, a general who many Ugandans believe is positioning himself to take over from his 77-year-old father, as "obese" and a "curmudgeon".

 'Pigheaded magistrate'

He was released on bail in January after almost a month in custody, with his trial due to begin on March 23.

Chief magistrate Douglas Singiza had refused to relax Rukirabashaija's bail conditions, which included a hold on his passport and an order not to speak to journalists.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Rukirabashaija addressed Singiza as a "bespectacled pigheaded magistrate".

"You're a disgrace! Now, put my passport in the dock and try it. I won't face you again, dear b******er of Museveni and Muhoozi," he wrote.

In Saturday's television interview -- carried out despite the bail conditions -- the author said he was forced to dance without rest for days and injected several times with an unknown substance.

"They were getting pliers and they plucked flesh from my thighs, everywhere," he said.

Rukirabashaija said on Twitter Wednesday that Museveni's son Kainerugaba "was in charge of my torture".

Kiiza said his client was aiming to go to Germany for treatment.

"He told me he was in Rwanda and going to another country and heading to Europe," Kiiza added.

Uganda and Rwanda have recently moved to repair relations after years of hostility, with the land border reopened last month.

Kainerugaba tweeted that he had spoken to Rwandan President Paul Kagame who told him that the author was not in the country.

 Reports of torture

On Monday, the EU released a statement expressing concern over "a significant increase of reports of torture, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, harassment as well as attacks against human rights defenders, members of the opposition and environmental rights activists".

Museveni, who took power in 1986 and was once hailed as a reformist, has cracked down on dissent and changed the constitution to allow himself to contest elections again and again.

Journalists have been attacked, lawyers jailed, election monitors prosecuted and opposition leaders violently muzzled.

Outspoken Ugandan activist and writer Stella Nyanzi, who was imprisoned in 2019 after posting a profane poem about Museveni, also fled to Germany earlier this year.

Rukirabashaija won acclaim for his 2020 satirical novel "The Greedy Barbarian", which describes high-level corruption in a fictional country.

He was awarded the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage, which is presented annually to a writer who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs.

Rukirabashaija has been repeatedly arrested since "The Greedy Barbarian" was published and said he was previously tortured while being interrogated by military intelligence.