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Uganda: drop COVID-19-related charges and release Kakwenza Rukirabashaija

Monday 4 May 2020 - 10:25am

Author Kakwenza Rukirabasaija

PEN International is seriously concerned about the detention and welfare of writer and journalist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who is held under charges related to COVID-19 which appear to violate his legitimate free speech. PEN calls on the Ugandan authorities to immediately and unconditionally release him and provide assurances of his safety.

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, author of the recently published novel The Greedy Barbarians, was arrested at his home in Iganga District, Kigulu County, on Monday 13th April 2020, by officers understood to be from the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI). Seven days later Rukirabashaija was brought before Iganga Magistrates court and charged with ‘doing an act likely to spread the infection of disease [C19], Section 171 of the Penal Code Act, Cap 120.’ The Ugandan authorities claim that he ‘unlawfully/negligently posted messages on his Facebook account mobilising the public against complying with directives and public health guidelines issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and knowing or having reason to believe that such actions would lead to further spread of COVID-19, a disease dangerous to human life.’ He was remanded in custody to Busesa government prison, 17km from his home.

'Ugandan PEN calls upon the Government of Uganda to drop all charges against Kakwenza Rukirabaishaija, and unconditionally release him. We believe that his arrest and imprisonment are linked to the fact that he has published a novel entitled The Greedy Barbarians. In a democratic state that Uganda claims to be, where freedom of expression is enshrined and guaranteed by the Ugandan Constitution (1995), free speech must be protected at all costs. Writing a novel, however critical it may be perceived to be, by persons in authority, is never a reason for state harassment.' Dr Danson Kahyana, President, PEN Uganda.

Held for 7 days, blindfolded in solitary confinement at Mbuya military barracks, Rukirabashaija told his lawyer that he had been subjected to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment throughout interrogations which centred on his novel and other writings. Rukirabashaija is due to reappear at Iganga Magistrates court on Wednesday 6 May 2020 to faces the charges, which he vehemently denies.

'The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a ready-made excuse for law enforcement officials and governments in many parts of the world to settle scores by arresting, charging, harassing, and intimidating dissident journalists and writers. Kakwenza Rukirabashaija's case is no exception. It is clear from available reports that his arrest and torture have little to do with what he may have said on a social media post and more with his novel that the authorities have found frustrating because it criticises the powerful. All charges must be dropped and Rukirabashaija must be released immediately.' Salil Tripathi, Chair, PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

PEN International is deeply concerned for the health and wellbeing of Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, and fear that his arrest may be related to opinions he has expressed in his writings, and therefore in violation of his right to freedom of expression and opinion as protected under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Uganda is a state party. Furthermore, Article 7 of the ICCPR, provides that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. We call on the Ugandan authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Rukirabashaija, and drop all charges against him.

For further information, please contact:

Romana Cacchioli | Deputy Director |

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