Detained Ugandan satirical novelist displays signs of torture on brief home visit

·8-min read

Nearly a week after his arrest, Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a prominent Ugandan satirical novelist and critic of President Yoweri Museveni made a surprise visit home under guard. Security forces wanted to search the dissident writer’s house, but his wife didn’t have to search for visible signs of torture as her husband turned victim, once again, of Uganda’s brutal crackdown on dissent.

The New Year was off to a harrowing start for Eva Basiima, wife of award-winning Ugandan author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. She had not heard from her husband since his arrest last week after the satirical novelist disparaged Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his powerful son in social media posts.

When she saw her husband again on Monday, Basiima was left traumatised.

Nearly a week after his December 28 arrest, security forces brought Rukirabashaija home while they conducted a search of his home. The 33-year-old novelist and winner of the prestigious 2021 PEN Pinter Prize displayed visible signs of torture, according to his wife.

“He was in a bad state … I broke down. I’ve never been so broken like yesterday,” Basiima said in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from her home in the Ugandan town of Iganga on Tuesday. “His legs were swollen, he looked starved. He was trying to show me under his feet, his soles, they were very badly bruised. He was in handcuffs and wearing the same clothes he was wearing on December 28, when he left us.”

While security officials searched the house for nearly three hours, overturning everything and terrifying the couple’s three young children, Rukirabashaija was allowed to use the toilet. He was then granted permission to take a shower – with an officer in the bathroom – since he hadn’t been able to wash himself or even brush his teeth for nearly a week.

“He refreshed [himself] and left his clothes in the bathroom. I looked at them, they were filled with blood, there were dried blood stains on his clothes. I took them and I kept them as evidence,” explained Basiima.

It was a resourceful move from a woman who is no stranger to Uganda’s systemic use of torture and intimidation tactics against critics of Museveni and his inner circle. Within hours, images of her husband’s blood-stained shirt and underpants circulated on Twitter. In a message alerting the international community, Rukirabashaija’s lawyer Eron Kiiza on Monday posted photographs of the clothes and condemned “the heinous torture” of his client.

During the house search, Basiima was not able to speak to her husband privately or at length. But she saw sharp piercings on the soles of his feet, leading her to suspect her husband was made to walk on nails. His stained underpants have sparked fears that he is urinating blood due internal injuries.

Experiencing and writing about torture

The signs of torture, including bruises and a damaged kidney, were unfortunately familiar to Basiima. This is the third time the Ugandan author has been arrested over the past two years. He has claimed that he was tortured during all of his arrests.

In April 2020, Rukirabashaija was detained and questioned about his novel, “The Greedy Barbarian”, which takes on themes of high-level corruption in a fictional country.

Following his release, the author wrote about his experience with torture in another book, “Banana Republic: Where Writing Is Treasonous”. In September 2020 he was arrested again, interrogated about his second novel, and released under a bond requiring him to report to the police on a weekly basis for an indefinite period.

Rukirabashaija’s fearless drive to speak truth to power was internationally recognised last year, when he was awarded the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage prize in October 2021.

Two months later he was detained again while driving from his home in Iganga, where he had celebrated Christmas, to the capital Kampala.

‘Unconditional’ release order, but no freedom

Under Ugandan law detainees can be held for 48 hours without charges. But Basiima had heard nothing about the case, nor had she seen or heard from her husband until his shocking appearance on Monday morning, nearly a week after his arrest.

During the house search, the 33-year-old kept badgering security officers for details of the charges against her husband. They declined to answer and told her instead that the charges would be filed in a Kampala court later Monday. When they left, Basiima made the 120 kilometre journey from Iganga to Kampala, but there was no court hearing. She returned home shortly after midnight.

On Tuesday, a Kampala court ruled in Rukirabashaija’s favour in a civil complaint against his illegal detention without charges. Magistrate Irene Nambatya ruled that the Ugandan writer should be "unconditionally" released, adding: "Every police officer should comply with the above order.”

But in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 just hours after the ruling, Kiiza said his client had not been released. Rukirabashaija was due to appear in a separate criminal court on Tuesday but he did not show up, the human rights lawyer noted.

“No formal charges have been filed – that can only be done when he is brought to court. They can still go ahead and charge him. The highest likelihood is they will charge him. Police fear producing him in court with torture marks, that's why they are delaying bringing him to court," explained Kiiza.

Since Rukirabashaija’s arrest, Kiiza said he has been denied access to his client.

Meanwhile, Charles Twiine, spokesman for the Police Criminal Investigations Department (CID), told reporters in Kampala that Rukirabashaija was to be charged under the Computer Misuse Act with an offence that can carry up to a year in jail.

Despite the civil ruling for his immediate release, the authorities are likely to continue intimidating Rukirabashaija. “It fits in with what’s already happened to Kakwenza: when he was arrested for a second time and released, he was required to report to police pending investigation. It’s within the continuum of ongoing harassment for his open criticism of public officials,” explained Nduko o’Matigere, Africa regional coordinator at PEN International, in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Nairobi.

A ‘quasi-monarchy’ with ‘military aristocracy’ underpinnings

Uganda’s crackdown on freedom of expression increased in the lead-up to last year’s elections, when Museveni – Africa’s longest-serving leader – won a sixth term in office. His main rival – a former rap star known by his stage name, Bobby Wine – challenged the results but later withdrew the case, citing a lack of confidence in the judicial system.

Rukirabashaija had recently stepped up criticism of Museveni's son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, an army general who many Ugandans believe is positioning himself to take over from his 77-year-old father.

The 47-year-old Kainerugaba’s rise up the military ranks is being carefully monitored by experts who note that the country’s security forces are key to his father’s grip on power.

In the course of his 35 years in power, Museveni, a former senior military officer, has frequently shuffled officers to remove rivals and promote loyalists. His inner circle today includes his son; his wife, Education Minister Janet Museveni; and his younger brother, former military officer Salim Saleh. It’s a power nexus that the British magazine Africa Confidential acerbically described as “a quasi-monarchy” with “a kind of military aristocracy underpinning it”.

On social media sites, Museveni’s son is a larger-than-life figure; a subject of much lampooning by government critics and expats. But the 47-year-old first son, who leads the military’s land forces and has commanded special forces accused of violations, also has vocal supporters on Twitter who proclaim Kainerugaba is the man who will “carry forward the mission to transform Uganda”.

‘Justice must prevail’

When he seized power in 1986, ending years of tyranny under Idi Amin and Milton Obote, Museveni was hailed as a reformist. But the former rebel has since stifled dissent and changed the constitution to allow himself to stand in elections again and again.

“The international community needs to put a focus on Uganda and condemn the wanton disrespect for human rights until Uganda takes seriously its constitutional promises and international rights obligations that it signs,” said o’Matigere.

The East African country has long been a major recipient of US foreign aid and security assistance, particularly for counterterrorism operations in the region, notably in Somalia.

But in recent times, there are signs that Washington’s patience with the Museveni administration’s violations is wearing thin. Following the latest pre-election crackdown on opposition supporters, which killed more than 50 people, Museveni failed to make it on US President Joe Biden’s list of invitees to the December 2021 Summit for Democracy.

Last month the US announced sanctions against Uganda's military intelligence chief, Major General Abel Kandiho, citing his involvement in serious human rights abuses including beatings, sexual assault and torture.

But from her home in Iganga – where she is struggling to reassure her three young children, traumatised by the sight of their badly beaten father brought home by security officers – Basiima said she would like the international community to do more. “In my humble opinion, justice must prevail,” she said slowly between sobs. “I’m requesting the international community to fight for justice and for any help that can be rendered to us.”