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Uganda Begins Election Campaign Amid Call for 'Level Playing Field'

FILE - Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Observers say police brutality, obstruction of media and a lack of accountability have undermined free and fair elections in previous cycles in Uganda.

Candidates running in Uganda's February presidential election officially began their campaigning Monday, while Human Rights Watch called on the government to ensure a "level playing field" for everyone.

Uganda's Electoral Commission approved a list of eight candidates, including President Yoweri Museveni's bid for a fifth term and opposition leader Kizza Besigye's fourth attempt to knock the president from power.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement late Sunday saying police brutality, obstruction of media and a lack of accountability for past election abuses have undermined the process of free and fair elections in Uganda.

"The campaign period is a critical opportunity to avoid the repression, violence, police brutality, and recriminations of past campaigns, said HRW Senior Africa Researcher Maria Burnett. "All Ugandans should be able to attend rallies, listen to all candidates in person or on the radio, and express their views without reluctance or fear."

The group has previously urged Ugandan authorities to stop obstructing peaceful political gatherings, especially with the use of teargas. Its latest statement said Museveni's long tenure in office and tight control of the government "raise serious challenges for fair campaigns and elections."

Museveni won his fourth term in 2011 with 68 percent of the vote compared to 26 percent for Besigye. The European Union, which observed the vote, said the election was "marred by avoidable administrative and logistical failures" but was "generally conducted in a peaceful manner."

In the months that followed, Besigye launched protests against the election as well as rising food and fuel costs. Authorities arrested him multiple times.