Ugandan police fired bullets and tear gas Monday to disperse a crowd of protesters demanding the release of a jailed pop star who is a prominent critic of President Yoweri Museveni.
There were no deaths in the riots in a downtown market in the capital, Kampala, as the security forces chased rioters who had barricaded roads, police spokesman Emilian Kayima said. Footage by local broadcasters showed soldiers and police arresting scores of people and bundling them onto trucks.
The jailing and alleged torture of pop star and lawmaker Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, whose stage name is Bobi Wine, has raised political tensions in this East African country whose president has been in power for 32 years.
Ssentamu was charged last week with unlawful possession of firearms. Three of his colleagues, also in detention, face treason charges. A fifth lawmaker, Francis Zaake, has been hospitalized with injuries he sustained during detention. On Sunday his supporters in a town outside Kampala staged protests in which police killed one person.
The lawmakers were arrested over their alleged roles in an incident last Monday in which the president’s motorcade was pelted with stones in the northwestern town of Arua, where they had all been campaigning for an election to choose a member of parliament for the area.
Critics say the detention of Ssentamu, who denies any wrongdoing and says he has been “severely tortured,” is an example of the government’s alleged authoritarian hand. Ssentamu’s driver was shot and killed in Arua on Monday, allegedly by the security forces, and the singer was the only one charged in a military court. Authorities say he possessed illegal weapons at the time of his arrest, but his wife and others say the evidence was planted.
Ssentamu has emerged as an influential figure in local politics after winning a seat in parliament last year. In multiple by-elections recently he campaigned for opposition candidates who have emerged victorious, in the process defeating both the ruling party and established opposition parties. Some of followers are urging him to run for president.
The U.S. Embassy said it was “disturbed by reports of brutal treatment” of the lawmakers and last week urged the government “to show the world that Uganda respects its constitution and the human rights of all of its citizens.” The European Union delegation and several other Western diplomats expressed similar concerns.
In a statement Monday religious leaders condemned the violence “in which lives are lost, people are barbarically arrested and tortured and property destroyed.”
“Electioneering is a constitutional right,” they said.
Museveni, a U.S. ally on regional security, took power by force in 1986 and has since been elected five times. Although he 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.
“Pseudo-democrats, be informed that the game of trying to hijack our democracy by fascists and foreign agents is over,” Museveni said in a statement Sunday. “We shall not tolerate any threats by words or by actions. Enough is enough.”