Uganda should drop all charges against a prominent author who has fled into exile and instead investigate claims he was tortured in detention, Human Rights Watch said Friday. The rights watchdog said the arrest of satirical novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was testament to the continued repression of dissidents in the East African country through strict cyber security laws.
Rukirabashaija, an internationally acclaimed writer, was arrested shortly after Christmas over a series of unflattering social media posts about veteran President Yoweri Museveni and his powerful son Muhoozi Kainerugaba. The 33-year-old said he was tortured by his interrogators during his month-long detention in a case that has triggered international alarm.
“The authorities should unconditionally drop any charges against the author and ensure that all security officials implicated in his torture and enforced disappearance are held to account,” HRW said in a statement.
Rukirabashaija appeared on television at the weekend to reveal welts criss-crossing his back and scars on other parts of his body.
He said military officers beat him, forced him to dance for hours at times, tore at his flesh with pliers and injected him repeatedly with an unknown substance. The novelist fled the country on Wednesday saying he wanted to seek treatment abroad for his injuries.
“Instead of prosecuting their critics over tweets, the Ugandan authorities should be investigating this and many other serious allegations of torture by state security in recent years,” said HRW researcher Oryem Nyeko.
Uganda has witnessed a series of crackdowns aimed at stamping out dissent, with journalists attacked, lawyers jailed, election monitors prosecuted and opposition leaders violently muzzled. Activists have been repeatedly targeted using the strict Computer Misuse Act which was used against Rukirabashaija and which carries heavy penalties, including jail time.
Outspoken Ugandan activist and writer Stella Nyanzi, who fled to Germany earlier this year, was imprisoned in 2019 under the same law after posting a profane poem about Museveni.
Ugandan authorities “should end the criminalisation of protected speech online and offline and address legitimate concerns raised by critics instead of persecuting them”, said HRW’s Nyeko.
Rukirabashaija won acclaim for his 2020 satirical novel “The Greedy Barbarian”, which describes high-level corruption in a fictional country and was awarded the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage. He has been repeatedly arrested since “The Greedy Barbarian” was published and said he was previously tortured while being interrogated by military intelligence.