23 December 2012

Uganda: No Jingle Bells in Luzira

FDC's Kabaziguruka braces for Christmas in jail

Before his arrest, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) politician, Michael Kabaziguruka, often watched the sun poke the pale-blue waters of Lake Victoria, during evenings at his home in Luzira, a Kampala suburb. Today, his place of abode is even much more closer to the lake, but that breathtaking sight of the waters is now obscured by the high-raised iron-curtain at Luzira maximum security prison.

Bound by shackles, Kabaziguruka lives a regimented life in a world of despair away from a comfortable suburban lifestyle. He will be spending this Christmas holiday in jail. I had known Kabaziguruka as an amiable young man who indulged in the rough and tumble of the country's restive politics; I lived near his home at Lake Drive in Luzira, a few years ago.

Before he moved there, former FDC President Dr Kizza Besigye used to rent the house of Kabaziguruka's late father, from where he beat a security ring to flee to exile in 2001. Kabaziguruka often talked about his profession as an accountant and lecturer. He was sociable and a political aficionado who never hid his admiration for Col Besigye. In 2011, Kabaziguruka contested for the Nakawa seat in Parliament and lost to the ruling party's Freddie Ruhindi, the Justice state minister.

He had been to Luzira prison before, to visit Besigye and many other colleagues who had been arrested on treason charges. Kabaziguruka had also traversed the prisons in search for votes. So, when the news of his arrest on September 11 broke - over alleged links to a new rebel group, the Revolutionary Forces for the Liberation of Uganda (RFLU) - it took many by surprise.

After being driven around the countryside where he was taken to areas where his alleged co-conspirators stayed, Kabaziguruka was charged in the Nakawa Magistrate's court.

"Between 2010 to-date in diverse places in Uganda, Kampala, Wakiso, Soroti, Kampala, Kiboga, Ntungamo, Kenya and DRC under a rebel group RFLU, the four contrived a plot to overthrow the government through meetings, recruitment, mobilization, acquisition of arms, uniforms, soliciting funds," state prosecutor Joseph Bayige stated in the charge sheet before Kabaziguruka was carted off to a cell at Luzira prison, where he is being held with his brother, Arthur Kabaziguruka.

Last Wednesday, a colleague and I visited Kabaziguruka. With the rigours of red-tape, we went through about five check-points before we were ushered to the visitors' room. I had carried food items for Kabaziguruka which were searched for the umpteenth time at the last check point, this time by fellow inmates before they were delivered to him.

Upon the request, the guards quickly alerted Kabaziguruka that he had visitors. He is being detained in the East wing, a unit for 'high-profile' prisoners including the July 11, 2010 Kyadondo rugby club bomb suspects and captured LRA rebel fighter, Thomas Kwoyelo.

The situation was out of control at the visitors' room, which was overcrowded. Relatives and friends jostled to find space in the booths which are without telephone lines, to speak to inmates. In one of the booths, was the former Premier of Tooro and businessman, John Sanyu Katuramu, who has been in jail for murder, for over a decade. It's a known secret that no other inmate enjoys a VIP treatment in jail compared to his.

Katuramu has an entire booth to himself as other prisoners crowd into the others. He even has a prisoner who ensures that wherever he is, it's not over-crowded.

"He receives visitors throughout the day. His conditions are relaxed like others who have been here for long," says an inmate.

Katuramu is engaged in a serious conversation with his visitor who appears to be seeking financial help.

"He still helps people, even those who are not his relatives, to pay their fees and other needs," says an inmate.

As we await the FDC politician, Katuramu's prisoner-errand boy with a touch of arrogance attempts to chase visitors who are standing adjacent to his booth, including my colleague and I. But it was a call we refused to heed. After a brief spell of waiting, Kabaziguruka came in, appearing composed but with a face that betrayed emotions that come with charges that carry a maximum penalty of death upon conviction.

During our conversation, a horde of prison wardens kept a close glance at us as Kabaziguruka narrated in detail the harrowing ordeal of his arrest, being driven to Kiboga and Ntungamo districts and later on being blindfolded and kept in a safe-house in Ntinda.

"Ever since we were arrested, we found the conditions here were not good. The terror suspects barely had a few hours outside their cells. Conditions have now improved because we now have television sets and we can read newspapers; the rules have been relaxed a bit," says Kabaziguruka.

However, he complains that they have no toilets and use a bucket system where they ease themselves and return with the same buckets, an issue which affects the inmates psychologically. The cell he shares with a colleague is less congested in a prison which reeks of dirt, overcrowding and squalor.

So, what does he expect this Christmas?

"I expect relatives and friends to visit me on Christmas day and pray that God changes the hearts of those who are holding us and yet we are innocent," says Kabaziguruka.

However, he believes he could be held for a long time.

"I am prepared to stay here for many more years and celebrating many Christmases here. My spirit is not broken. I and my colleagues are victims of a regime which is intolerant to divergent views," says Kabaziguruka, who believes he is a prisoner of conscience, arrested on trumped-up charges.

A senior prisons officer discovers we are journalists and stops the conversation.

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