KAMPALA (Reuters) -Uganda has space in its prisons to cope with any spike in arrests during next week’s presidential election and the police beat reporters for their own good, senior security officials said on Friday.
Campaigning ahead of the Jan. 14 election, which pits President Yoweri Museveni against 10 other candidates including popstar-turned-lawmaker Bobi Wine, has been marked by brutal crackdowns on opposition rallies.
Wine has been arrested multiple times and security personnel routinely break up his rallies. In November, 54 people were killed as security forces quelled protests after Wine was detained. Reporters have also been attacked by police.
At a pre-election news conference with senior security officials, Uganda’s police chief Martin Okoth Ochola refused to apologise, saying reporters would be stopped from trying to go to areas where their lives could be at risk.
“You are insisting you must go where there is danger. Yes, we shall beat you for your own sake to help you understand that you do not go there. Yes, we shall use reasonable force to ensure that you don’t go where there is a risk. Actually, I have no apology,” he said.
The authorities say Wine’s rallies break laws governing public order and COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings.
In November, the International Press Institute called on Uganda to investigate police attacks on reporters. Human Rights Watch, a watchdog based in New York, also said in November that Museveni’s government was using COVID-19 rules as a pretext to violate rights and crack down on the opposition and the media.
Johnson Byabashaija, Uganda’s commissioner general of prisons, told the news conference at police headquarters in the capital Kampala that his service was ready to handle any increase in detainees.
“There’s always an upsurge of the prison population, especially after the elections. I can assure you that we can accommodate whatever number of people are, or will be, thrown at us,” Byabashaija said.
Dozens of campaign staff working for Wine are being held in a military barracks after authorities defied court orders to release them, Wine’s lawyer George Musisi said on Friday.
He said 118 Wine supporters and staff were arrested on Dec. 30 on Bugala Island in Lake Victoria, where they had travelled to campaign. A court ordered their release on Monday but the prisons service did not comply, Musisi said.
On Thursday, 46 were freed and 72 were taken to Makindye military barracks on the outskirts of Kampala, he said.
Military spokeswoman Flavia Byekwaso told Reuters she needed time to study the situation before responding. Prisons service spokesman Frank Baine did not answer a call to request comment.
On Friday, 49 of those held in the barracks were arraigned before a court martial in Kampala and charged with the unlawful possession of ammunition, Musisi said. They included Wine’s singing partner known as Nubian Li and his bodyguard.
Uganda’s anti-terrorism laws allow for civilians who commit crimes using weapons that are generally only used by the defence forces to be charged in military courts.
(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Editing by Maggie Fick and David Clarke)