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Human Rights Watch: Court Martial of Ugandan Opposition Candidate Should Not Proceed

Human Rights Watch Friday denounced the upcoming military tribunal of Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye and 22 others on terror charges. The human rights group says an earlier civilian court ruling that ordered the military tribunal not to take any action for the time being must be respected.

At the end of the month, opposition candidate Kizza Besigye and 22 others are scheduled to face terrorism and weapons charges in military court.

The accused, who are all civilians, are also undergoing a treason trial in High Court. In addition, Mr. Besigye is answering to a rape charge in High Court. The opposition candidate has denied all the charges against him and maintains they are intended to prevent him from running against the president in the February election.

In early December, the High Court said that the court martial cannot proceed until Uganda's Constitutional Court decides whether or not it is legal for the accused to be tried in a military court. The Constitutional Court has yet to make that decision.

In a 2003 ruling, the Constitutional Court said that military courts are subordinate to the High Court.

Human Rights Watch Friday urged Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to step in and tell the military that it must respect the rulings of superior courts.

The spokesman for Human Rights Watch's Brussels office, Lance Lattig, tells VOA that, under international human rights law, military courts can only hear the cases of military personnel for military offenses.

"In general, civilian courts offer broader protections for defendants than military tribunals would, because military tribunals have exceptional rules dealing with the conduct of military personnel in an armed conflict, for example," he said. "There is no reason why these defendants should be tried under a military tribunal."

Human Rights Watch also accused the Ugandan government of stepping up arrests and prosecutions of opposition members ahead of next month's elections.

Ugandan authorities argue that civilians can face military court if they possess illegal firearms or are charged with terrorism.

Mr. Besigye and his supporters stand accused of, among other things, supporting a rebel group to overthrow the government.

Presidential candidate Besigye is leader of the Forum for Democratic Change party. He returned to Uganda last October after more than four years in exile, only to be arrested the following month and charged with rape and treason in High Court and terrorism and illegal possession of firearms in a military court. He was jailed and released earlier this month.

It is widely believed that the charges are politically motivated, designed to prevent Mr. Besigye from campaigning fully and to ruin his reputation.

The opposition politician was once Mr. Museveni's personal physician and is seen as a serious contender for president.

Mr. Museveni and his government have come under fire internationally for Mr. Besigye's detention. Sweden, Britain, Norway, Ireland and The Netherlands have withheld part of their funding because of concerns about democracy.