Activists have asked the US to impose targeted sanctions on senior leaders of the Ugandan police force, following the arrest of human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo.
Police on Tuesday arrested Mr Opiyo, a human rights lawyer and Executive Director of Chapter Four Uganda. Mr Opiyo was at a restaurant with four other lawyers when he was reportedly blindfolded and bundled in a car by plainclothes officers.
Police said Mr Opiyo was being detained for money laundering crimes. But Robert Amsterdam, opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine’s international lawyer, argued there is a political motive to dissuade the lawyers from investigating recent police killings.
“Such thuggish scare tactics and trumped up charges are aimed at discouraging the investigation being led by these lawyers into the police killings of 37 protesters on the 18th and 19th of November.”
The protests arose after Mr Kyagulanyi who is running for Presidency on the National Unity Party was arrested and detained. Mr Opiyo and his colleagues were reportedly investigating individual police officers involved.
Mr Amsterdam, who also represented Tanzanian opposition figure Tundu Lissu and Cameroon’s Maurice Kamto, said the US must punish the rogue police to stop what he argued was ‘thuggish’ treatment of opposition figures and activists.
“This action by the regime of President Yoweri Museveni represents a clear and unambiguous attack on the democratic rights of the Ugandan people,” Amsterdam wrote in a letter to Elliot Engel, the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Michael McCaul the Lead Republican of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
A spokesperson for the Ugandan Police Force said Mr Opiyo was being detained at Special Investigations Unit (SIU) as police analyse exhibits recovered.
"We would like to further inform the public that the Task Team actively investigating lawyer Nicholas Opiyo and others for violating anti-Money laundering rules has deepened its investigations into the preliminary findings,” police tweeted Wednesday before adding: "...our forensic teams are analysing exhibits that have been recovered so far. The suspects still remain in our custody at the Special Investigations Division Kireka.”
Amsterdam’s letter to the US Congress asked for sanctions usually imposed on individuals under a law known as the Global Magnitsky Act. Passed in 2016 during the Obama administration, the law may allow the President to revoke US visas and block all US-based property and interests of foreigners and foreign organisations. Usually that happens to those deemed to have violated human rights through extra-judicial killings, torture or any ill treatment of individuals who expose illegal activities of government officials. It may also target corrupt officials.
Last year, the US Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on former Ugandan police chief Edward Kale Kayihura “for using corruption and bribery to strengthen his political position, as units under his command committed serious human rights abuses,” when he was head of the Uganda Police Force (UPF).
Kayihura was police boss between 2005 and 2018 where he masterminded brutal arrests of former opposition candidate Kizza Besigye. Kayihura is currently facing charges related to crimes against the state.
The arrest of Mr Opiyo and four of his colleagues—Herbert Dakasi, Anthony Odur, Esomu Obure and NUP's Human Rights Officer Hamid Tenywa—aroused criticism both in Uganda and abroad. Natalie E. Brown, the US Ambassador to Uganda, said it was worrying to hear of his arrest.
“I just met Opiyo and was impressed by his commitment to rule of law and to uplifting his fellow citizens,” Ms Brown wrote on her Twitter page, referring to a recent meeting she had in Kampala with Mr Opiyo, leaders of the Uganda Law Society and other human rights activists.
“News of his arrest is troubling and I call on the Ugandan Government to ensure his safety and wellbeing. Civil society must be able to carry out its essential role in Uganda,” she said.
His organisation, Chapter Four Uganda, said he had been denied access to legal representatives and that his family had been barred from seeing him.
Mr Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Mr Opiyo was being punished for exposing the ills of the government.
“He pulled no punches in challenging President Museveni's oppressive government and regularly described abuses to the media,” he said.
The World Movement, a network of civil society groups, said it was “extremely alarmed by Uganda's abduction of Nicholas Opiyo.”
“We add our voices to the many others around the world calling for him to be released immediately.”