Ugandan satirical novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who was named International Writer of Courage by PEN last year, has been illegally detained and tortured for criticising the president and his son, his lawyer said.
Gunmen came to the writer’s house on 28 December after a series of tweets about the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, including one calling him a thief and his son and presumed successor “an incompetent pig-headed curmudgeon”.
In his last tweet Rukirabashaija said he was under house arrest and the men were entering by force. He has not been able to contact his lawyers since then, and no charges have been brought.
On Monday police took him with them to search the family’s country home. His wife was there and was horrified to see her husband weak, injured, limping and wearing bloodstained underwear.
She said she saw wounds on his feet and he told her there were others on his buttocks, and that he had been deprived of food. “[He] told me he was starved, asked for what to eat, when I served him with a glass of milk, he retched it,” she said in an affidavit to court.
His lawyer Kiiza Eron is demanding that the author is released, as under Ugandan law police can only detain people for 48 hours without charge. He has obtained a court order for Rukirabashaija’s release, but the authorities are ignoring it.
“Police have admitted holding him, but they are not willing to allow us access… he has been incommunicado apart from the day of the search,” Eron said.
A spokesman for the criminal investigations directorate (CID) said on Monday that the author was being held over “abusive” tweets from late December. Charles Twiine of the CID claimed an investigation was nearly complete and Rukirabashaija would be taken to court by Tuesday to face charges of “offensive communications”.
But there have been no further comments from the government, and the author remains in jail without charge, despite growing international pressure.
PEN America called for his urgent release. “Kakwenza Rukirabashaija is no stranger to the Ugandan authorities’ systematic suppression of dissident views, yet he has courageously continued to speak out,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk programmes. “These rights violations demonstrate a vindictive abuse of the law and demonstrate the truth of many of the critiques Rukirabashaija himself is being targeted for making in his writing.”EU special representative for human rights Eamon Gilmore is among the diplomats who have raised their concerns.
“I’m alarmed by reports of alleged torture and incommunicado detention of author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. He remains in detention without trial, despite a court order for his unconditional release. I urge Ugandan authorities to uphold the rule of law and due process,” he said.
Rukirabashaija is best known for his novel The Greedy Barbarian, which tackles corruption in a fictional country. He was arrested in April 2020 and held for seven days and tortured, then detained again in September of that year. He detailed that treatment in his latest work, Banana Republic: Where Writing Is Treasonous.
“In Africa, when you write fiction, especially political fiction, such as the political allegory Animal Farm by George Orwell, the leaders will always think that one is writing about them,” Rukirabashaija wrote.
“Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, felt that it was him that I had written about and so he sent his hoodlums to arrest and torture me in order to hamper my creativity. The idea was to completely stop me from being creative.”
Uganda is a key western ally in east Africa, and has received billions of dollars of development and security assistance from the UK and US. But Museveni faces pressure over human rights failings that have worsened in recent years, since he started to face significant political challenges.
He claimed victory in elections last January, but they were marred by allegations of fraud and the harassment and illegal detention of opposition activists. Ugandan security services even held children for months in prisons, the Guardian discovered.
Museveni, 77, has been in power for 36 years and has strong support in some rural areas, as well as among the military, security services and police.