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Amnesty Condemns Government Crackdown on Ugandan Dissidents

Uganda's main opposition leader Kizza Besigye (3rd L) and his supporters are blocked by policemen during a 'walk-to-work' protest in Kasangati suburb near Uganda's capital Kampala, October 18, 2011.

Amnesty International has condemned the Ugandan government’s increasingly harsh treatment of political dissent, a day after opposition leader Kizza Besigye was once again detained by police.

Amnesty International is calling the Ugandan government's treatment of its political opponents “repressive.”

The London-based NGO issued a report Tuesday noting in particular the treatment of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Kizza Besigye.

Ugandan police beat and fired tear gas at Besigye last spring as he participated in a protest movement called “Walk to Work.” Last month, when the protests against high prices and corruption resumed, Besigye was placed under unofficial house arrest for nearly a week.

Besigye was detained again on Monday and held for nine hours in what police called a “preventative arrest.” Several other organizers of the protests have been arrested and charged with treason. They could face the death penalty if convicted.

The author of the Amnesty International report, Godfrey Odongo, says Ugandan political activists are being targeted in an official crackdown on free speech.

“We’ve seen a general ban on all manner of protests, peaceful or not, which ban has directly led to the use of lethal force and excessive force by the police," said Odongo. "And subsequently, the police use politically-motivated criminal charges levelled against protesters, levelled against key opposition leaders. These actions of the government are not legitimate because the government has not provided concrete evidence to justify, for example, why national security is under threat. It says the protesters want to overthrow the government. That’s not good enough.”

Odongo says government repression has been on the rise since the last presidential election in February, when longtime President Yoweri Museveni was re-elected, defeating Besigye.

“This is the worst we’ve seen the government deal with protests," he said. "Previously it has allowed certain protests, for example, in the context of campaigns and elections. But there has never been a situation in Uganda where there is no possibility of holding any forms of protest. That is unacceptable.”

Ugandan government spokesman Fred Opolot dismissed the Amnesty report.

“This is really extremely unfair on the government, given that the government of Uganda is an extremely liberal government that has often promoted freedoms of expression of Ugandans, amongst other freedoms,” said Opolot.

He adds that the Walk to Work protesters have not heeded the regulations governing all protests in Uganda, and that the police are simply trying to maintain public order.

“The police have to manage such processions," said Opolot. "Otherwise the rights and freedoms of other people will be affected, as we saw in the last protest that happened when a lot of people’s goods were vandalized, shops were broken into, and indeed some lives were lost. That is precisely what the police is trying to avoid.”

The Amnesty report also accuses the Ugandan government of trying to silence journalists by harassing them, arresting them on politically-motivated charges and attempting to ban live broadcasts of demonstrations. Many journalists, it says, have been physically assaulted by police and security forces.

Amnesty's Odongo thinks these attempts to stifle dissent show that the Ugandan government is on the defensive.

“Evidence is pointing to this government wanting to monopolize and control what is out there in terms of criticism of government policy and public officials," said Odongo. "A lot of this is based on the fact that the government thinks that its stranglehold on power is under threat.”

Amnesty International is urging the Ugandan government to respect freedom of the press and its citizens’ right to peacefully protest, both of which are enshrined in the Ugandan constitution.