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Ugandan Pop Star, Government Critic, to Face Military Court

FILE - Musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, center, is joined by other activists in Kampala, July 11, 2018.
FILE - Musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, center, is joined by other activists in Kampala, July 11, 2018.

A pop singer and prominent critic of Uganda's government was due to face a military court Thursday for his alleged role in clashes in which the longtime president's motorcade was attacked by people throwing stones.

Lawmaker Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, whose stage name is Bobi Wine, will be tried under military law because he allegedly possessed a gun when he was arrested in the northwestern town of Arua earlier this week, a government official told lawmakers Wednesday.

Ssentamu's wife insisted he doesn't know how to handle a weapon, and rights activists demanded his release.

Three other lawmakers arrested alongside Ssentamu were charged with treason in a magistrates' court on Thursday. It was not immediately clear what charges Ssentamu might face.

The lawmaker has not been seen or heard from since his arrest, and many were worried about his safety after Uganda's deputy prime minister told lawmakers he had been hospitalized in custody, without giving details.

Ssentamu and other politicians, including President Yoweri Museveni, were in Arua on Monday campaigning in a by-election to choose a lawmaker.

Ssentamu's driver was shot dead in the clashes there. The lawmaker later posted a picture of the dead man on Twitter, saying he had been killed by the police "thinking they've shot at me."

A group of lawmakers authorized by the parliament speaker to travel to the northern town of Gulu, where Ssentamu was believed to be detained, told reporters Thursday that they had been denied access to their colleague.

Kizza Besigye, a four-time presidential challenger who has been detained many times, told reporters Thursday that Ssentamu's case highlighted what he called "the hopelessness" of parliament before a military regime.

Museveni's statement

Museveni said in a statement Wednesday that Ssentamu and others would be "punished according to the law."

Ssentamu, who is his 30s and was elected to parliament last year, has emerged as a powerful voice with his calls for young people to "stand up" and take over this East African country from what he calls the current government's failed leadership.

In hotly contested by-elections this year he has backed candidates who emerged victorious, signaling his rise in ranks of the political opposition. Many followers urge him to run in the next presidential election in 2021.

The by-election in Arua was being held because the area's member of parliament, a member of the ruling party, was shot dead near the capital, Kampala, in June.

Growing concern

Museveni, a key U.S. security ally, took power by force in 1986 and has since been elected five times. The last vote in 2016 was marred by allegations of fraud.

Although Museveni has campaigned on his record of establishing peace and stability, some worry that those gains are being eroded the longer he stays in power. Museveni, who is 73, is now able to seek re-election in 2021 because parliament passed legislation last year removing a clause in the constitution that had prevented anyone over 75 from holding the presidency.

Uganda has not witnessed a peaceful transfer of power since independence from Britain in 1962.