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Trial for Ugandan Opposition Leader Postponed

In Uganda, the High Court treason and rape trial of a prominent opposition politician has been moved to the beginning of next month, while his military court martial has been postponed indefinitely. Many believe the charges are politically motivated.

Kizza Besigye and 22 other suspects pleaded not guilty in High Court to charges of treason. Dr. Besigye also pleaded not guilty to a rape charge.

In addition, the leader of the political party Forum for Democratic Change faces a court martial on charges of terrorism and unlawful possession of weapons.

Dr. Besigye did not appear before the military court as expected, and the court martial was postponed indefinitely. His lawyers argued that it was unfair and unconstitutional for a civilian to have to face a military court and answer to charges based on the same allegations presented in High Court.

Defense lawyers complained that they did not have access to Dr. Besigye, and said they needed time before the case should move forward. The rape case is scheduled for hearing on January 2, and the treason case on January 6.

Among other things, Dr. Besigye stands accused of supporting a rebel group based in the Democratic Republic of Congo that is alleged to be aiming to overthrow the Ugandan government.

A member of parliament attending the trial, Abdu Katuntu, tells VOA he believes the charges against Dr. Besigye are meant to keep him from campaigning and running as a presidential candidate in Uganda's February 23 elections. "He is innocent, and these trumped-up charges are there for purposes of sabotaging his presidential bid, and also to discredit his personality," he said.

Prosecution lawyer Simon Byabakama tells VOA there is substance behind the charges. "If we did not have evidence in support of these charges, we would not be here in the first place. But the best avenue, the best arena is for the court to hear evidence. It is challenged under cross examination, and the trial judge will assess the credibility of this evidence and decide whether anybody is guilty or not," he said.

Dr. Besigye, once President Yoweri Museveni's personal physician, was a presidential candidate in the 2001 elections. He fled into exile shortly afterward, saying that his life was in danger. He returned to Uganda in October, and was arrested and detained several weeks later.

Mr. Museveni is coming under increasing international pressure to release Dr. Besigye and allow him to compete in the upcoming elections. His arrest is viewed as the latest move by the government to try to stay in office.

Earlier this year, Uganda's parliament lifted the two-term presidential limit set out in the constitution. Mr. Museveni was subsequently nominated by his party to run for a third term.