Two Ugandan opposition lawmakers freed after 17 months of detention

A Youtube video screenshot of members of parliament, Allan Ssewanyana(L) and Muhammad Ssegirinya(R) during the court session for their bail application appearing via video conferencing from Kigo Prison.

Two Ugandan members of parliament, Allan Ssewanyana and Muhammad Ssegirinya of the opposition National Unity Platform political party headed by pop star turned politician Bobi Wine, were granted bail following a 17-month detention on charges of murder in the district of Masaka. Ssewanyana and Ssegirinya, who were arrested on Sept. 7, 2021, just four months after they were sworn into office, received bail on Sept. 21, 2021, and were rearrested as they left the prison premises. Their bail attempts had been futile until Feb. 13, 2023, when their freedom was finally granted. The two were asked to pay $5,400 each and hand over their passports to court so that they can return to court when required.

In 2021, 17 people were reportedly killed in the central Ugandan district of Masaka. The two MPs were among those who were arrested as suspects and detained for months without trial. It is unclear whether they were part of the perpetrators or if their arrest was just an act of victimisation as in the past when political leaders, such as Bobi Wine and Kizza Besigye, have been accused of treason, rape, and unlawful assembly, among other charges, which never got conclusive rulings in the court.

It has become common practice for opposition leaders and members of the opposition to be arrested and detained for long periods without trial as a new wave of repression sweeps the country under President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. Opposition political party leaders Bobi Wine and Dr. Kizza Besigye have been arrested multiple times. There have also been reports of torture of victims under illegal detention, such as the most recent case of Mwesigwa Eric, an activist and Bobi Wine supporter who appeared with flat iron burns on his chest.

In some instances, the government has been using the military court to try and hold civilians for long periods without trial.

Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor reported that for the two MPs to regain their freedom, the leader of the opposition in parliament Mathias Mpuuga had to hold meetings with top executive leaders in government:

Highly-placed sources said the protracted negotiations culminated in a senior government executive meeting over the accused lawmakers last month. Insiders said the state has information against MPs Ssewanyana and Ssegirinya regarding their alleged dealings with overseas Ugandan-born cardiologist Aggrey Kiyingi reported to be their financier.

In the course of their detention, the two MPs faced deteriorating health and continuously sought bail to get specialised treatment. During the bail hearing, Ssewanyana looked ill via the video conferencing link from the Kigo prison. He continuously leaned his head against his colleague Ssegirinya.

Freedom Negotiations

In the same report, Daily Monitor quoted the parliamentary spokesperson saying that the speaker and deputy speaker got involved in the negotiations that saw the two legislators gain their freedom:

 Mr. Chris Obore, the director for communications and public affairs at Parliament, said whereas he was unaware of the referenced meetings, “from the word go, the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker have been engaging with [the] government on the matter of the two MPs (Ssewanyana and Ssegirinya)”.

“The Speaker and the Deputy Speaker chose negotiations instead of pandering to the public gallery,” he said, adding, “There were issues that the state had against the MPs and the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker said the issues were legitimate, but it shouldn’t [be handled in a way that] gives the Opposition a propaganda advantage.”

In a video shared on Twitter by journalist Bahati Remmy, minister of justice and former leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Norbert Mao, claims that his work and effort influenced the release of the MPs. He claims he has met the MPs in prison and their families to resolve the issue.

 The secretary general of The National Unity Platform was present at the prison following the court releasing the duo and spoke to the media outside Kigo prison during the night of February 13, 2023, saying he was not sure they may be rearrested on release.

After questions about his initial silence, party president Robert Kyagulanyi, famously known as Bobi Wine, made a statement on Feb. 16, expressing gratitude for the release of the two MPs and everyone who called for their freedom. He said he had not spoken to them and had no knowledge of any negotiations. “Our position remains that we must not beg Gen. Museveni for our GOD GIVEN rights,” Wine wrote in the statement. “The suggestion that one needs to negotiate with Museveni to get bail, which should be entirely a court process, is not only shameful, but ridiculous,” he continued.

While appearing on NBS Television, former Ugandan minister Kiwanda Ssuubi said that he does not believe there was a deal between the government and the opposition leaders to have the legislators released.

There have been no official statements, videos, or photos of the two released MPs as they were not publicly handed over to the party and family members but were driven to other relatives’ homes. It is reported that Ssewanyana was checked into a hospital but no further information yet about where Ssegirinya is at this time.

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