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Activists Demand Police Release Prominent Ugandan Human Rights Lawyer

Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opio, seen (left) in this file photo carrying one of her clients, has been arrested on Dec. 22, 2020. (Photo: H. Athumani/VOA)

Ugandan rights activists are calling on authorities to release human rights lawyer Nicholas Opio, who was arrested Tuesday on allegations of money laundering. Supporters say Opio is being persecuted for his activism.

A group of lawyers and activists went to the Special Investigative Unit of the Ugandan police Wednesday to demand access to Opio and to ask police to release him.

Opio, who is executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, a human rights organization, was arrested Tuesday with two other colleagues at a restaurant in Kampala.

According to Chapter Four, Opio has been collecting evidence surrounding the killings and arrests that occurred during two days of protests in Uganda that began on November 18.

Fifty-six people were killed in clashes between opposition supporters and security forces following the arrest of singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine, leader of the National Unity Platform party.

Human rights lawyer Elone Kiiza says Opio is in good spirits. He does not believe Opio will be released in the usual 48 hours.

“They have not formally charged him,” said Opio. "They have not recorded his statement yet. We keep monitoring the situation in case they agree to release him on bond or decide to charge him.”

Police spokesperson Fred Enanga says police and Uganda’s Financial Intelligence Authority have been watching Opio and have reasons for his arrest.

“It’s on record that Nicholas Opio, the lawyer, has been [receiving] resources from various sources. You trace onward, to look at where, first of all, this money is coming from, the various sources,” said Enanga. "And then also how it is being channeled locally here. Which areas and persons. So, those are the lines of inquiry that the joint task team with the Financial intelligence unit are handling.”

Otsieno Namwaya, the director of Human Rights Watch East Africa, expressed concern about recent arrests in Uganda that he says could undermine the credibility of next month’s elections.

“The arrest is worrying, especially if police do not immediately charge him with any offense, and if they do not have any evidence then they should release him unconditionally,” said Namwaya.

Recently, the Financial Intelligence Authority ordered bank accounts frozen for two non-governmental organizations the FIA says are being used to finance terrorism in Uganda.

Both NGOs – the Uganda National NGO Forum and the Uganda Women’s Network – were monitoring various parties' election campaigns.