In Uganda, TrialWatch is monitoring the wide-ranging prosecutions of anyone, including artists and academics, who is critical of President Museveni or his government, and the targeting of the LGBTQ+ community. What these cases often have in common is the misuse of vague laws, whether to suppress expression or effect discrimination. Even where cases are eventually dismissed, these prosecutions go on for months and cause severe harms.
For instance, CFJ’s partner the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights monitored the trial of women’s rights activist Stella Nyanzi as part of TrialWatch. She was charged with ‘cyber harassment’ for posting a poem critical of President Museveni on Facebook. The report on her case concluded that the ‘cyber harassment’ law was inconsistent with international and regional standards and “[a]fford[ed] the judiciary unfettered discretion to jail individuals for speech.”
Likewise, when 67 individuals were arrested in a raid on an LGBTQ+ friendly bar, the authorities relied on a vague ‘petty offense’ to discriminate: The African Commission had previously found that “[l]aws that create petty offences are inconsistent with the principles of equality before the law and non-discrimination on the basis that they either target, or have a disproportionate impact on . . . vulnerable persons,” and that is exactly what happened with respect to the 67, with a magistrate caught on the record admitting that the case was in fact, in her view, about “gay people misusing their bums.”
Women’s rights activist and academic Stella Nyanzi was prosecuted for ‘cyber harassment’ and ‘offensive communication’ for using ‘radical rudeness’ to criticize President Museveni, for instance suggesting that Uganda would have been better off if he had never been born. After spending months in pre-trial detention, during which she said she suffered a miscarriage, she was given an eighteen-month prison sentence. Among other violations, the report found that she had been denied her right to call and examine witnesses and to have adequate time to put on her case, and gave her trial a grade of ‘D.’ The appeal court ultimately relied on this ground to overturn her conviction.
In the run-up to Uganda’s presidential elections, filmmaker Moses Bwayo was charged with ‘unlawful assembly’ for filming a scene for a documentary he was making about Ugandan musician and opposition leader Bobi Wine. The problem in the eyes of the police was that the group being filmed was wearing opposition attire and singing a song about the need to rid Uganda of corruption. As the report on the case concludes “[t]here are significant indicia . . . that the objective of the authorities’ actions was to crack down on dissent.” While the court eventually dismissed the charges, by the time it did so the case had already dragged on for six months, meriting a grade of ‘C.’
Ugandan authorities raided Ram Bar, a known safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, and rounded up 125 individuals. 67 of them were ultimately charged with ‘common nuisance’ across five different trials. The report on the cases finds that accused were targeted based on their perceived sexual orientation. Not only did one of the magistrates refer to the case before her as being about “gay people misusing their bums,” but in two of the five cases, the prosecution surprised the defense with allegations of same-sex activity seemingly unrelated to the nuisance charge months after the cases began. The report notes that “[o]ver the course of almost a year, state attorneys . . . failed to put forth a single witness or piece of evidence in the five cases against the 67,” giving the cases a grade of ‘D.’ While most of the cases were eventually dismissed, the prosecution of the 67 resulted in forcible outings and the loss of jobs.
TrialWatch is currently monitoring proceedings against members of the ‘Bizonto’ comedy troupe, who have been charged with ‘sectarianism’ for a satirical video criticizing the fact that many of those in top positions come from the western part of Uganda, as does President Museveni.
TrialWatch is also currently monitoring proceedings against two individuals, one of whom is a transgender woman, who have been charged with having had sex.
Journalist and filmmaker Moses Bwayo was charged with unlawful assembly for shooting a scene for a documentary about opposition activist, presidential candidate, and musician Bobi Wine: the authorities alleged that the gathering and filming constituted subversion of the Ugandan government.
From March to August 2019, the ABA Center for Human Rights monitored the criminal trial of academic and prominent women’s and LGBTQ rights activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi. The prosecution and conviction of Dr. Nyanzi for political speech constituted a violation of her right to freedom of expression.
In November 2019, 67 individuals were arrested at Ram Bar, which was known as one of the only safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda. The defendants, who were among a larger group of 125 individuals rounded up at the bar, were charged with “common nuisance.”