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Ugandan author who fled after ‘torture’ vows to return home

Ugandan Author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija

An award-winning Ugandan author and fierce government critic who fled the country after being “tortured” in custody told AFP on Thursday that he planned to return home despite his ordeal.

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, 33, slipped out of Uganda on Wednesday to seek treatment abroad for his injuries, ahead of a criminal trial in a case that has triggered international concern.  The satirical novelist is facing charges over a series of unflattering social media posts about veteran President Yoweri Museveni and his powerful son Muhoozi Kainerugaba. 

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

Rukirabashaija said he was tortured during his nearly month-long detention, and has posted pictures showing large welts criss-crossing his back and scars on other parts of his body. 

“No-one knew I was leaving. I travelled alone and was not helped by anyone, even my lawyer was surprised,” he said in a phone interview from a secret location.

He said his decision to flee was “difficult” because he left his family behind but that it was “a relief” to be out of Uganda. Rukirabashaija  added that he felt it was the only option after a court refused to return his passport to allow him to legally travel abroad for medical treatment.

“I’ve been diagnosed with damaged kidneys, bruised ribs and post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

‘Not feeling fine’

He has described being beaten with batons, forced to dance for hours at time, attacked with pliers used to tear at his flesh and injected repeatedly with an unknown substance.

“I don’t know whether I was poisoned. I’m not feeling fine.”

He said he escaped via neighbouring Rwanda after taking a boda boda motorcycle taxi to the border and walked over the hills on a small path to avoid detection. He refused to disclose his current location and said he had not yet settled on his final destination, although Germany, Denmark or the United States were all possibilities.

“After getting the treatment, I will return to Uganda and will use the airport.”

Since he fled, Rukirabashaija has been tweeting relentlessly, even becoming embroiled in a Twitter spat with Kainerugaba whom he accused of being “in charge” of his torture and branding him a “baby despot.”

In one of the posts that got him arrested last year, he had described Kainerugaba, a general who many Ugandans believe is positioning himself to take over from his 77-year-old father, as “obese” and a “curmudgeon.”

Rukirabashaija won acclaim for his 2020 satirical novel, “The Greedy Barbarian”, which describes high-level corruption in a fictional country. He was awarded the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage, which is presented annually to a writer who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs.

‘Thousands in exile’

Rukirabashaija has been repeatedly arrested since “The Greedy Barbarian” was published and said he was previously tortured while being interrogated by military intelligence.

The novelist described his earlier time in detention as “inhumane and degrading” in his most recent book “Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous”. His case has raised concern from United States, the European Union and civil society groups, and has highlighted the state of human rights in the East African country.

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.

Uganda’s NUP Party leader Bobi Wine

Popstar turned opposition politician Bobi Wine, himself a frequent target of the security forces, said on Twitter that he was delighted that Rukirabashaija was “safely out of Uganda, and hopefully now safe from Museveni and his murderous son”. 

“Kakwenza joins thousands of Ugandans in exile in different countries,” added Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi.

On Monday, the EU released a statement expressing concern over “a significant increase of reports of torture, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, harassment as well as attacks against human rights defenders, members of the opposition and environmental rights activists.”