PEN International welcomes the good news of Uganda novelist and 2021 PEN Pinter prize International Writer of Courage winner, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija’s safe arrival in Germany earlier today. We commend PEN Germany for welcoming Kakwenza and thank them for all the social and professional support they will accord him for respite and healing. We also thank all individuals and organizations that have worked tirelessly to coordinate and enable his safe passage.
“Kakwenza was targeted for simply holding and expressing uncomfortable opinions about influential individuals within Uganda’s political and military establishment. Despite systematic efforts to curtail and criminalize free speech, including the right to peaceably offend, the Constitution of Uganda protects the right to freedom of expression. PEN decries the fact that a writer was forced to flee his country to escape state persecution and violence for exercising his protected rights.” Said Burhan Sönmez, President of PEN International.
PEN International has documented and campaigned on behalf of Kakwenza Rukirabaishaija since his first unlawful arrest on 13 April 2020 and torture in military and police custody. Although he was questioned by security forces about his debut novel, The Greedy Barbarian, he was maliciously charged in a Magistrate’s Court for Covid-19 violations. To its credit, the Magistrate’s Court subsequently dismissed the case and freed Kakwenza.
For a second time, on 18 September 2020, Kakwenza was unlawfully arrested, detained incommunicado and tortured by military intelligence operatives and released on police bond after three days. He was questioned about his book, Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, although the release bond stated that he was under investigation for the ambiguous offence of ‘inciting violence and promoting sectarianism’. Since then, he has been required to report to a police unit 240 kilometers from his home every two weeks, oddly to ‘answer to the charges’ as investigations continue.
More recently, on 28 December 2021 Kakwenza was violently arrested at his home by military operatives and detained incommunicado for close to two weeks. Following sustained local and international pressure, Uganda authorities secretly arraigned Kakwenza before a Magistrate’s Court on 11 January 2022 and charged him, unrepresented, with offensive communications and committed to prison remand custody. The charge was in reference to unflattering comments he had posted on Twitter about president Yoweri Museveni and his son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba. Muhoozi is the commander of the land forces of the Ugandan army.
PEN International has verified reports that Kakwenza was severely tortured and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment while in the custody of the elite Special Forces Command (SFC) based in Entebbe. Among the torture methods the security forces reportedly used include beatings using leather whips, batons, wires, and iron rods; use of pliers to squeeze toes, fingers and pinch off flesh; enforced physical exercise for prolonged periods; starvation; injections with unknown substances and medication with neither consent nor information. Kakwenza has informed PEN that Muhoozi who previously served as the commander of the SFC visited the detention facility and personally tortured him on at least one occasion.
On 25 January, Kakwenza was released by Court on stringent bail terms, including a gag order against speaking about his ordeal in detention, a ban on speaking about the case, and forfeiture of his passport to the Court. On the day of his release, military operatives abducted him from Kitalya prison as his lawyer and family members waited for him outside to take him home. It later emerged that his abductors detained him at a military barracks before driving him to his rural home at dawn on 26 January. Kakwenza has reported that while at the military barracks, Muhoozi met him again and promised him material rewards and safety in exchange for silence about the torture he had been subjected to while in military custody.
Kakwenza’s pleas to the Magistrate’s Court to release his passport to enable him travel abroad for specialized treatment and care as recommended by medical experts were rejected. He reported receiving death threats if he continued talking about his detention ordeal and being subjected to extrajudicial surveillance.
For non-violently exercising his right to freedom of expression through writing and public commentary, Uganda authorities have systematically subjected Kakwenza Rukirabashaija to horrendous legal and extralegal harassment over the last two years.
PEN International is convinced that Kakwenza has no chance for a fair trial within Uganda’s justice system given the power and influence of President Museveni and his son, Muhoozi - both at the center of his persecution. Neither would his rights to life and personal liberty be guaranteed given the prevailing pattern of state violence against government opponents and critics and systemic impunity for perpetrators. His safe escape from Uganda was the only option left for him to stay alive.
PEN International will continue campaigning for justice for Kakwenza Rukirabaishaija and exert pressure on the Ugandan authorities to fulfill their international human rights obligations, including in respect to citizens’ rights to freedom of expression speech and freedom from torture.
For further information, please contact Nduko o’Matigere, Africa Regional Coordinator at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK – e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org