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Uganda Court Probes Military Trial for Opposition Leader


Uganda's Constitutional Court is expected this week to examine whether or not it is legal for prominent opposition politician Kizza Besigye to be tried in a military court. It is widely believed that authorities in Uganda have detained Dr. Besigye to stop him from campaigning in the country's upcoming elections. His lawyers and supporters are demanding he be released on bail immediately.

The leader of the political party Forum for Democratic Change, Kizza Besigye, faces charges of terrorism and illegal possession of firearms in a military court, and treason and rape charges in civilian court.

Defense lawyers and party supporters argue that it is illegal for a civilian such as Dr. Besigye to be held and tried by a military court, and that he should not face trials in two separate courts to answer essentially the same charges.

Authorities in Uganda argue that civilians can face military court if they possess illegal firearms or are charged with terrorism, and that the charges lodged against Dr. Besigye are sufficiently different to merit trials in two separate courts.

The Constitutional Court will begin hearing both sides of the issue Thursday to eventually rule on whether or not it is legal for Dr. Kizza Besigye to be held by, and face trial in, a military court.

Meanwhile, the doctor-turned-politician remains behind bars.

Defense lawyer Sam Njuba tells VOA that Dr. Besigye should have been released Monday following his appearance in High Court, as his trial was moved to early next month and the court had earlier granted Dr. Besigye bail.

Mr. Njuba says the military court has no right to extend Dr. Besigye's detention order, which expired Monday, especially since the High Court had ordered the military court to take no action for the time being. He says he is calling for his client's immediate release.

"That is the most unfortunate thing that Dr. Besigye is still in prison, because, first of all, the order of the High Court stayed all action of the general court martial. [The] general court martial could not have remanded him again. As far as we are concerned, he is illegally being held," he said.

Army spokesman Major Felix Kulayigye denies that extending Dr. Besigye's detention in prison to early next year is illegal or goes against what the High Court said.

He explains that Dr. Besigye did not face trial Monday in keeping with the High Court's order for the military court not to take any action for the time being.

"So, in order to maintain a harmonious relationship with the High Court, the general court martial upheld that ruling," he said. "That is why he was not tried yesterday."

"But in order not to be caught on the wrong side of the law, they renewed the order for him to stay on remand until the ruling is made by the Constitutional Court," continued Dr. Besigye. "Under the circumstances, therefore, there is no way the general court martial can set him free when he has not appeared before it, therefore it was prudent to extend his remand."

Dr. Besigye's lawyers and supporters say the longer he stays in prison the less time he has to campaign as a presidential candidate in Uganda's February 23 elections.

Winnie Byanyima is Dr. Besigye's wife. She tells VOA that she thinks Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who is running for a third term, has the upper hand in the campaign.

"It is becoming politically unsustainable for Museveni to walk around the country, to fly around in his helicopters campaigning against a prisoner. He [Museveni] is under pressure to release him [Besigye] because he [Museveni] is going to have a hollow victory if he declares himself a winner against a prisoner," she said.

Mr. Museveni's supporters, in turn, say that the president has overwhelming support in the rural areas, and that Dr. Besigye's popularity is confined mostly to the capital Kampala and other big towns.

Mr. Museveni became a presidential candidate following parliament's decision to lift the two-term presidential limit set out in the constitution.

The international community is putting increasing pressure on Mr. Museveni and his government to release Dr. Besigye on bail and follow other democratic procedures.

Several days ago, Sweden joined Britain, Norway, Ireland, and the Netherlands in withholding part of their funding because of concerns about democracy leading up to next year's elections.

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