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People in Ugandan Opposition Stronghold Fearful

In Uganda, the imprisonment last month of opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye and 22 others is widely seen as a sign that next year's elections might not be free and fair. This is felt particularly strongly in Dr. Besigye's home town, Rukungiri, in western Uganda. There, opposition supporters say the violence and vote rigging that were seen in the last elections will be repeated this time around - charges the ruling party denies.

Some 70 residents of Rukungiri, a small town nestled in the rolling green hills near the Congolese border, are gathered at a town hall meeting to discuss how to make next year's elections peaceful and democratic.

One old man says that observers from the African Union should come in to make sure that the army does not intimidate people, and that there is no vote rigging, as was reported the last time elections were held.

A young woman called for the release of Forum for Democratic Change leader Kizza Besigye, who faces charges of rape, treason and terrorism.

Many residents of Rukungiri are still haunted by the 2001 elections in which town resident Dr. Besigye ran against President Yoweri Museveni for the first time.

They say ballot boxes were stuffed with papers before voting even began, soldiers beat and arrested many people, and opposition officials were accused of supporting rebels and trying to overthrow the government.

Allan Nyesigire attended an opposition rally shortly before the 2001 polls. He recalls the violence that followed, instigated by who he says were soldiers of the Presidential Protection Unit, or PPU.

"We met them [PPU solders] at the roundabout, and they started beating everyone who came from the stadium grounds - beating, shooting," he said. "When they saw others running, they started using their guns. They shot at random. After shooting at random, other people were injured with sticks, other were injured with these guns. I was running away from that PPU when they were shooting at random. Then they shot me on the back shoulder when I was running. They shot me, and I fell down."

Mr. Nyesigire was among several injured in that clash. At least one person was killed.

District counselor James Bwitonyetsire says he is seeing signs that the ruling National Resistance Movement, commonly known as "the Movement," is setting the scene for what he says is another round of violence and rigging in the upcoming February 23 elections.

"They have started dressing the army men in police uniform, and these police officers are actually harassing people very, very seriously. Election officials are arranging to appoint Movement supporters to man the elections throughout the polling stations," he said.

Forum for Democratic Change official Ingrid Turinawe tells VOA the army was brought into Rukungiri when shopkeepers closed their businesses for two days at the time of Dr. Besigye's arrest in November. She says soldiers patrol the streets all night and had recently attacked and robbed a supporter.

An opposition supporter tells VOA security agents are dressed in plain clothes and mingle with townspeople in bars and other places, making many feel insecure. Another supporter says these security agents warn people not to vote for the opposition or else be put in jail.

Emmy Ngabirano, a district counselor and the district registrar for the ruling National Resistance Movement, or NRM, says the clash during the 2001 campaign happened because opposition supporters threw stones at police, and that the Presidential Protection Unit was merely protecting police.

Mr. Ngabirano assures Rukungiri residents that the same violence will not happen in these elections.

"We are saying, let's have free and fair elections. We are mobilizing people, we are explaining to them achievements of NRM, we are presenting our manifesto," he said. "FDC [Forum for Democratic Change] people are presenting their manifesto. We agree on issues of development, but we don't agree on issues of politics. We are not enemies, we are political opponents. That's the message we are giving to the people down on the ground."

He explains that people who have been caught committing traffic violations and other offenses often say they are opposition members being victimized by the government.

Gertrude Tumwesigye disagrees. She says that, as the wife of one of the 22 co-accused facing treason and terrorism charges with Dr. Besigye, she is deliberately being targeted.

The secondary school teacher says that, for more than a year, heavily armed men have been showing up at her home and workplace. She has been followed by a local government official and accused of being a terrorist.

The mother of five recalls how a security agent last month captured her gardener at gunpoint and tried to bribe him to join a rebellion that would overthrow the government.

Ms. Tumwesigye thinks this was an attempt by security agents to plant guns on her farm, to be presented as evidence at her husband's trial, which is scheduled to take place in High Court next month and possibly military court as well.

"These people wanted to use guns and plant them in my plantation and claim that I'm a rebel keeping those guns, if the boy had conceded, because all along that's what they had wanted," she said.

Mr. Ngabirano denies that his party is using the army, police, security agents, and other state resources to intimidate opposition officials and supporters, and says that he has not heard of such intimidation taking place.