Ugandan author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija is seen in an undated photo posted to his Twitter Dec. 25, 2021.

'The torture of political prisoners is real' in Uganda, says poet and free speech activist

Ugandan poet Stella Nyanzi talks about her friend, the satirist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, and his torture while recently under military detention. His crime? Calling Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's son "obese" in a series of tweets last December.

The World

Ugandan satirist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija recently spent 28 days in military detention. His crime? Calling Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's son "obese" in a series of tweets last December.

His lawyer says Rukirabashaija was tortured while in detention.

Rukirabashaija, a satirical fiction writer, was detained on Dec. 28, and charged with two counts of “offensive communication” for his alleged efforts on Twitter to “disturb the peace” of President Yoweri Museveni and his son, Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who commands the East African country’s infantry forces.

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The writer has been detained twice before over his work highlighting the failures of Museveni, Uganda’s leader since 1986.

Rukirabashaija, 33, was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize for an international writer of courage last year. English PEN, a human rights organization for writers, has called for his release.

The case has renewed focus on the alleged excesses of the security forces in enforcing Museveni’s authority.

Ugandan poet and activist Stella Nyanzi knows all too well about offending the president. She is currently living in exile in Germany after facing similar charges of "offensive communication" as her friend and colleague, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. 

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Nyanzi joined The World's host Carol Hills to talk about her ordeals in detention and the dire lack of freedom of speech in Uganda under longtime ruler Yoweri Museveni. 

Carol Hills: Stella Nyanzi, You spent time in prison twice in Uganda. What were some of the things you said or wrote that got you into trouble? 
Stella Nyanzi: As a poet, living in an oppressive society, I've written about the anguish that you Ugandans go through all the time, and a lot of what I write is directly critical of Yoweri Museveni. For example, when he spoke on a national public holiday and said he was not working for Ugandans, but instead he's working for his family, I wrote and named him metaphorically as a "pair of buttocks." I have criticized his wife for being without enough brains to run the Ministry of Education, and I had a fundraiser for brain cells for the wife. I metaphorically wrote about his mother's genitals strangling him to death, such that the womb that produced him would have done the world so much good if, in fact, he hadn't been born. However, all my satirical writings against the regime seem to actually offend the first family.
 I want you to tell us about Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. He's a friend of yours, and he's the satirist who's gotten in trouble recently. What did he say exactly in this series of tweets about Museveni' son in December? 
Right, So, Kakwenza has written about the obesity of the first son, who is the commander of the land forces and ... qualifications? Where are the qualifications of the president's son to be in power, the commander of the land forces? So I think irrelevant to the content of what is written, what the regime power holders find problematic is the audacity of everyday Ugandans to criticize the abuses and excesses of the power holders. 
Rukirabashaija is now out on bail. He was detained for 28 days. He's been charged with offensive communication. You were charged with that at one point. What does that mean? 
Offensive communication is a vague aspect of the Computer Misuse Act, a weaponization of the law to fix and silence those of us who are critical of power holders in Uganda. 
So you're suggesting that these laws were created capriciously to allow the government to go after critics of the first family? 
Exactly. And so a number of us who cannot protest on the streets physically because of fear of arrest and criminalization and punishments, monetary fines and prison time have resorted to expressing our discontent online. However, the Computer Misuse Act was put in place to further shrink and perhaps suffocate the voices of those of us who are dissenters against the power holders in Uganda.
I want to get back to Rukwenza Rukirabashaija. His lawyer says that he was tortured while he was in military detention recently, and he's now getting medical treatment. You said you were tortured when you were in prison. What happened? 
In detention, a number of us who are political prisoners, who are prisoners of conscience simply because we are questioning or criticizing or condemning the excesses of power in our country are subjected to torture — outright torture — physical, mental, emotional, traumatizing torture during interrogation. In my case, I was abducted by men in masks from a private car after a fundraiser. I was beaten up during questioning. The second time I was arrested, I was pregnant and expecting a child. Again, I was tortured, this time by prison wardresses — women — working and paid for by salaries from the taxes of Ugandans. I was kicked, I was punched. I was denied food on some days. They tortured me to the extent that I had a miscarriage. But for me, part of the pain of these prison wardresses is that even when I said to them that "I am bleeding," they were so unsympathetic that they say to me, "You, you are in your 40s, you a post-menopausal woman." And even after the prison doctors had confirmed, indeed, I had suffered a miscarriage, the prison authorities denied me access to my private doctors. And so the torture of political prisoners is real. Perhaps much worse than myself, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was more brutalized because he was in military detention. We don't even know what military installation had him abducted on behalf of the first son.
And this is the most recent incident where he was detained for 28 days, he's now out on bail. Yes. Yeah, it's really difficult. You know, listening to you speak about what happened. I wondered if you've been in touch with Kakwenza Rukirabashaija since he was released a few days ago. 
I spoke with him the day he was released. He was dumped outside his home at 3:30 in the morning. We had been hearing tales of the sort of wounds he encountered from his torturers, so I spoke with him on the phone and he said, "Stella, indeed. My kidneys have deteriorated, my left ankle..." so, the ankle on his left leg is broken. And indeed there is a report that confirms wounds and internal bleeding. 

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Kakwenza Rukirabashaija is still in Uganda. You made the decision to leave. Why? 
I left Uganda because it is dangerous. It is risky for anybody to speak critically. In order to keep alive while I speak, I need to speak from outside. I refuse to silence myself. I'll keep speaking out and I hope I can do so safely.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

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