Uganda's most prominent human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, has been arrested along with three other lawyers and a human rights officer for opposition candidate Bobi Wine's National Unity Platform party. The group was picked up on Tuesday by plainclothes men from a Kampala restaurant, handcuffed and driven away in an unmarked vehicle.
Several hours later, the Uganda Police Force revealed on social media that Opiyo was in custody on suspicion of money laundering "and related malicious acts". No reason has been given for the arrest of the others.
Opiyo is the Executive Director of Chapter Four, a leading non-profit legal and advocacy organisation focused on defending civil liberties, and has won several international awards for his work.
The others detained are Anthony Odur, Simon Peter Esomu, and Herbert Dakasi, lawyers working for other civil society organisations, along with NUP's Hamid Tenywa.
The five were kept overnight without access to their lawyers or families, prompting the Uganda Law Society to release a statement saying, "The abduction... and incommunicado detention of Nicholas Opiyo is high handed and unnecessary."
ULS STATEMENT ON THE ILLEGAL ARREST OF ADVOCATE NICHOLAS OPIO.@UHRC_UGANDA @PheonaWall @DianaAngwech @UgandanLawyer @NetpilUganda @makpilac @chapterfourug pic.twitter.com/PIujXUVaeq - Uganda Law Society (@ug_lawsociety) December 22, 2020
The US Ambassador in Uganda, Natalie Brown, has expressed concern over Opiyo's detention, calling it "troubling" and adding, "Civil society must be able to carry out its essential role in Uganda."
I just met @NickOpiyo & was impressed by his commitment to rule of law & to uplifting his fellow citizens. News of his arrest is troubling & I call on the Ugandan Government to ensure his safety & wellbeing. Civil society must be able to carry out its essential role in #Uganda. https://t.co/RnyzbnRJnk - U.S. Ambassador to Uganda (@USAmbUganda) December 22, 2020
The arrests come at a tense juncture ahead of January elections in which 76-year-old President Yoweri Museveni is seeking a sixth term, facing popular young contender, singer and MP Bobi Wine.
Wine's arrest on charges of breaking Covid-19 regulations last month led to protests in which at least 54 people were killed. President Museveni blamed the violence on external forces wanting to destabilise Uganda.
Opiyo has recently been a vocal critic of a crackdown on the opposition and on civil society organisations in Uganda, and was representing two NGO's whose bank accounts were frozen several weeks ago on accusations of financing terrorist activities. The organisations in question were involved in civic education and election monitoring.
Several foreign NGO workers involved in election monitoring have also been deported from Uganda.
In September, Opiyo spoke on social media of a break-in at his home where he said his laptop, hard drives, phones and cameras were stolen. He said that when he tracked his phones online, they were located in the area of military headquarters in Kampala.
Chapter Four is deeply concerned about the abduction and incommunicado detention of @nickopiyo our Executive Director earlier today afternoon by unknown security operatives.
Stephen Tumwesigye, a lawyer who serves on the board of Chapter Four, said, "The process of arrest is not prescribed in the law, it is abduction... It is extremely worrying that they are targeting lawyers and human rights defenders who are at the forefront of defending human rights, especially at the time of elections."