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Uganda’s Bobi Wine arrives in US, but fellow opposition politician blocked from leaving

Nicholas Opiyo via Reuters | Bobi Wine at Entebbe International Airport, Uganda, in an image taken from a social media video on Sept. 1, 2018.

Uganda’s high-profile politician-musician, popularly known as Bobi Wine, arrived in the US Saturday for medical treatment after allegedly being tortured while in detention. But a fellow opposition politician was blocked from leaving the country.


The photograph of a subdued Wine at an undisclosed US airport late Saturday stands in stark contrast to images of the beloved Afrobeats star during his parliamentary swearing-in festivities last year.

Back then, a beaming Wine -- whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – rode in an open-top vehicle, waving to the jubilant crowds as he made his way to parliament.

On Saturday though, a sombre Wine -- seated in a wheelchair with crutches propped between his knees -- stared forlornly into the camera with his wife, Barbie Kyagulanyi, resting her cheek on his trademark red beret.

Wine tweeted the photograph along with a message that revealed no details about his exact location in the US. “Safely arrived in the US where I’ll be receiving specialised treatment following the brutal torture at the hands of SFC soldiers,” he said, referring to Uganda’s Special Forces Command. “We thank the world for standing with us. I will soon tell you what exactly happened to me since 13th August,” he continued.

The prospect of Wine revealing “what exactly” happened to him in police detention was exactly the scenario Ugandan authorities were trying to avoid for several days as they attempted to block him from leaving the country.

Wine alleges that he was severely tortured between August 14 -- when he was arrested in in the northwestern town of Arua -- and August 27, when he was released on bail.

The 36-year-old singer-songwriter-turned-politician has been charged with treason over his alleged role in the stoning of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s convoy in Arua on August 13.

The outspoken musician-politician, whose lyrics often tackle themes of intimidation, oppression and corruption, denies the charges. His arrest -- and his shocking medical state during court appearances while in detention -- sparked protests across Uganda and an international campaign calling for his release.


Attempts by Wine’s family and supporters to fly the injured opposition parliamentarian to the US for medical treatment last week were blocked, according to local news reports. On Friday, Ugandan officials “abducted” Wine while he was trying to fly out of Entebbe's International Airport, and the opposition politician was “slapped” and “beaten", said leading Ugandan human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo in a Twitter post.

Another injured lawmaker blocked from leaving

Uganda’s extensive human rights violations – from police brutality to extrajudicial killings and opposition crackdowns – has been on the public record for several years. Discontent over the 74-year-old Museveni’s 32 uninterrupted years in power following two constitutional amendments is rising -- has been mounting.

But rarely has it been as much on display as in the Wine case.

It has also underscored the systemic abuses by Ugandan authorities that often go unnoticed in the international press.

While Wine was finally allowed to leave the country, another opposition lawmaker, Francis Zaake, has been blocked from flying to India for treatment, according to Ugandan activists and lawyers.

In a Twitter post featuring a clip of Wine being wheeled to a departure gate at Entebbe Airport, human rights lawyer Opiyo noted that, “We will now embark on getting Hon Zaake to leave for treatment too,” in an obvious attempt to maintain international pressure on Ugandan authorities.

On a hospital bed, ‘on the run’

Away from the international spotlight, the campaign against Zaake has been mounting with MPs from the ruling NRM (National Resistance Movement) party accusing opposition politicians of faking their pain. On Thursday, NTV Uganda tweeted a photograph of Zaake, with an oxygen mask and his head bandaged, lying in bed with the message, “Mr Ofwono Opondo, the Executive Director of the Uganda Media Centre says MP FrancisZaake is a suspect on the run who disappeared from Uganda Police custody in Arua and should be arrested at the earliest. He could be trying to escape from justice."

Zaake’s lawyers have also maintained their client was tortured in custody after he was arrested in Arua following the alleged stoning incident on the presidential convoy.

While claims that a severely injured man could be “on the run” stretch credibility, Ugandan police say Zaake will only be allowed to leave the country if he consents to having government doctors examine him, according to the Ugandan newspaper, Daily Monitor. Zaake’s wife told the newspaper her husband was not ready to be examined by government doctors because, “he does not trust them after he was put in the current condition by people he said work for the same government".

Zaake and Wine were expected to appear in court on Thursday, but the hearing has been adjourned to October 1.

Museveni praises special forces

The arrests of young politicians such as Zaake and Wine have exposed the generational chasm in the East African nation, where nearly 80 percent of the population are under the age of 30 and have only had Museveni for president.

Since he entered politics last year, Wine has emerged as a serious threat to Museveni with the musician-politician turning into a kingmaker of sorts, with many of the candidates he has supported wining by-elections.

Museveni, a close ally of the US, particularly on security issues, has spoken in recent days about "unprincipled politicians taking advantage of our unemployed youth to lure them into riots and demonstrations".

At an NRM meeting last week, Museveni praised the special forces implicated in Wine’s alleged torture for “not being cowards", according to the Ugandan daily, The Observer. “He saluted the SFC that they acted with restraint. That they are not trained to keep law and order but to fight. He told us that they really acted with restraint,” an unnamed ruling party source told the newspaper.

The Ugandan president’s opinion did not cut it with Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth. “No, Ugandan Pres Museveni, there's no such thing as "legally beating" someone in detention,” tweeted Roth. “If you were doing your legal duty, you would prosecute, not laud, those who brutally pummeled singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine.”

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