KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) – Protests erupted in Uganda’s capital on Friday after police blocked a pop star-turned-opposition lawmaker from leaving for the United States for treatment after alleged torture while in detention, while the government accused hospital workers of refusing to help police take his statement.
The actions by security forces have escalated a political dispute between the government of longtime President Yoweri Museveni and a youthful generation that fears he intends to rule for life after 32 years in power.
Bobi Wine, whose real name is Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, was stopped Thursday night while trying to board a flight at the Entebbe airport, lawyer Asuman Basalirwa told The Associated Press. He was checked into a hospital in the capital, Kampala, in a “worrying condition,” the lawyer said.
The 36-year-old had been freed on bail on Monday but faced no travel restrictions after he and several other lawmakers were charged with treason over an incident in which the president’s motorcade was pelted with stones and Ssentamu’s driver was shot dead. A lawyer for the singer has called the charge false.
Ssentamu has emerged as a powerful opposition voice among youth frustrated by Museveni, especially after the constitution was changed last year to remove an age limit on the presidency. The singer won a parliament seat last year without the backing of a political party.
Dozens of global musicians including Chris Martin, Angelique Kidjo and Brian Eno last week issued an open letter condemning the treatment of Ssentamu, who in his first public appearance after his arrest had to walk with support and appeared to cry.
On Thursday, police “violently abducted” Ssentamu and put him into a police ambulance, another lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, said on Twitter. Ssentamu’s wife, Barbara, said in a Facebook post that her husband “groaned in pain” as he shouted for help.
Authorities earlier on Thursday stopped another lawmaker, Francis Zaake, from boarding a plane to India, saying he was a suspect in a criminal case. Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said Zaake, who has not been charged with any crime, escaped police custody “and should be arrested at the earliest.”
Opondo on Friday said Ssentamu couldn’t travel abroad without court authorization. “What if he goes and doesn’t come back yet there are pending charges against him?” the spokesman asked in comments tweeted by the government’s press office.
A medical exam also was needed because the lawmakers had alleged torture but hospital officials were refusing to cooperate with police to get their statement, the spokesman said.
Ssentamu and Zaake were resisting efforts by government-provided medical personnel to examine them, according to local rights group Chapter Four Uganda.
Both men had been hospitalized with serious injuries they said they sustained at the hands of security forces during detention.
Ssentamu is said to be suffering a kidney problem, according to his legal team, which cited a medical report by the hospital where he had been hospitalized.
The government has denied the allegations of torture.
The treason charges against Ssentamu and others have heightened concerns about a crackdown on the opposition in this East African nation and led to protests in the capital.
Security forces on Friday deployed heavily in Kampala’s Kamwokya neighborhood as police spokesman Emilian Kayima noted “some young men who wanted to cause commotion.”
The 74-year-old Museveni, a close U.S. security ally, has held power since 1986. He has spoken in recent days about “unprincipled politicians taking advantage of our unemployed youth to lure them into riots and demonstrations.”
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