One of Uganda’s leading human rights lawyers, Nicholas Opiyo, is fighting charges stemming from his arrest in Kampala on Dec. 22, just weeks before the country’s Jan. 14 general election that will test President Yoweri Museveni’s more than three decades in power.
Plainclothes security officers and officials from the Financial Intelligence Authority pulled Opiyo and four others from a Kampala restaurant and placed them in incommunicado detention for 24 hours. The four others — three lawyers and a human rights officer from opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine’s National Unity Platform — were released on bond on Dec. 24. Opiyo was remanded into custody and charged with money laundering.
Museveni, who has held power continuously since 1986, is facing a stronger-than-expected challenge from Wine, a rapper-turned-opposition leader. Museveni’s bid for re-election was made possible by amendments that he and his allies in Parliament have pushed through over the years to cement his rule — first by scrapping presidential term limits in 2005 and then by eliminating the presidential age limit in 2017. Following a now-predictable pattern in the leadup to the polls, authorities have hastened arrests of political opponents and regime critics.
Members of the Uganda Law Society (ULS) were refused access to Opiyo but allowed to speak to him via video conferencing. On Dec. 28, a magistrate denied Opiyo bail, claiming only the High Court had jurisdiction to consider his application. He was remanded to Kitalya Maximum Security Prison, 30 miles northwest of Kampala. On Dec. 30, Opiyo appeared before the High Court, which granted him cash bail of USh 15 million ($4,100) and ordered his release. Justice Jane Okuo Kajuga’s order reaffirmed the presumption of innocence: “[H]owever serious a charge is, it all but remains an allegation. Courts are expected not to deny bail as a punishment.”
A Leading Human Rights Voice
Celebrated for his positivity and determination, Opiyo has been a leading voice in Uganda’s human rights movement for more than a decade. In 2013, Opiyo founded Chapter Four, an NGO to bring together lawyers and activists to develop coordinated legal strategies for defending civil liberties and advancing social justice. (The organization takes its name from the section of Uganda’s Constitution that enshrines fundamental rights and freedoms.)
Despite threats to his life and liberty, Opiyo has represented human rights defenders and fronted legal challenges to Uganda’s most regressive laws. Beginning in 2013, Opiyo led litigation to nullify the Anti-Homosexuality Act, a bill criminalizing consensual same-sex activity, successfully arguing that Parliament lacked a quorum to effectuate changes in the law. The same year, Chapter Four and partner organizations petitioned Uganda’s Constitutional Court to invalidate the Public Order Management Act that gave police expansive powers to block public gatherings and protests. In March 2020, the Court declared sections of the law unconstitutional.
Opiyo has also supported fellow Ugandan human rights lawyers in rule of law and Constitutional Court challenges, including illegal detention, women’s rights, and health and human rights cases.
In 2015, Human Rights Watch honored Opiyo with its Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, and in 2016, the European Union awarded him the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Since 2019, Opiyo has been a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for African Studies and the University of San Francisco’s Global Health Program.
Pretexts for Stifling Opposition
Observers believe Opiyo’s recent high-profile advocacy on behalf of opposition figures and human rights groups led to his arrest. In November, Opiyo represented Wine after police detained the political leader during a campaign rally that police said violated COVID-19 restrictions. Noting that Museveni continued to hold rallies, Opiyo called the rationale a pretext for stifling the opposition.
More recently, Opiyo defended two civil society organizations, the Uganda National Forum and the Uganda Women’s Network, against allegations of funding terrorism. Both organizations have publicly criticized government violence against opposition politicians and their supporters.
Chapter Four may also have drawn ire for receiving funding from foreign donors. In recent years, the government has targeted civil society groups that accept foreign funds, which it believes are intended to help unseat Museveni. In October, Chapter Four received $340,000 from a longstanding foreign donor; Ugandan officials allege Opiyo accepted the money knowing it was “the proceeds of crime.”
Primah Kwagala, a prominent human rights lawyer and executive director of the Women’s Probono Initiative, has advocated for Opiyo’s release and called the charges against him an attack on civil society.
“Nicholas is an ethical lawyer and manager. The government has produced no evidence that he violated the law,” Kwagala said in an email to one of us. “This is a transparent effort to shrink civic engagement in Uganda, and a deliberate move by the government to deny Ugandans the ability to criticize human rights violations in the lead up to the election.”
Opiyo’s next court appearance is Jan. 11, just three days before the election.