Ugandan President Squeezes Opposition Candidate Otunnu

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[Global: Africa]

Kampala police have renewed calls for Olara Otunnu, a prominent Ugandan prospective presidential candidate to appear for questioning, following his remarks linking Uganda's president with the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The former United Nations Under-Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict and current president of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) was served a summons to appear before police during a press conference last week.

The summons from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) followed Otunnu’s appearance on the Voice of Lango radio in northern Uganda. 

The radio station, bowing to pressure from Uganda's president, Gen. Yoweri K. Museveni, has since apologized for hosting Otunnu; Gen. Museveni personally called the station’s owner to complain, according to Ugandan media reports.

The CID summons charges Otunnu with criminal defamation --libel-- and states “inquiries are being conducted” into allegations that Otunnu “uttered defamatory words to the effect that the war in northern Uganda was facilitated by President Museveni and his government."

According to the summons, Otunnu was to report to CID headquarters Friday, April 16, 2010, “for questioning and to make a statement on the allegation.”

Uganda’s libel law excludes “spoken words or other sounds,” meaning that Otunnu’s remarks on the radio cannot be legally defined as libel, leaving no answerable charges, critics of the government contend.

Otunnu did not appear at CID headquarters as ordered on Friday, April 16th, and sent his lawyer to represent him -- but at a Monday morning press conference in Kampala, police said Otunnu’s appearance was mandatory.

“We want to know what he meant when he accused President Museveni of funding the war in northern Uganda. We want to establish his motive,” The Daily Monitor newspaper quoted Moses Sakira, CID Deputy Director as saying.

Article 29 of Uganda’s Constitution ensures Ugandans the right to free speech, but in recent months, members of opposition parties and journalists have been aggressively targeted for questioning and major private media outlets such as CBS radio have been shut down. 

Kizza Besigye, the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) president was also summoned for questioning last week, while several journalists from The Daily Monitor and Independent newspaper face pending sedition charges.

Speaking to supporters this week, Otunnu said he saw no need to appear before police since he had broken no laws, The Monitor reported Otunnu saying: “Let Museveni come and tell Ugandans that what I am saying is not true. In UPC we are God-fearing and law abiding people and the holy Bible encourages us to say the truth in order to set people free.”

Uganda relies on foreign funding for more than 50% of its budget. A recent US Congressional Directive mandates Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to monitor the election process in Uganda in partnership with the European Union. Clinton will monitor the preparations for the elections, the elections and its aftermath. The directive specifically emphasizes promotion of media freedom, independence of the electoral commission, security of candidates and a process free from intimidation.

But in an April 12 interview with The Daily Monitor, Gen. Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since seizing power in 1986, appeared wholly unimpressed by the concept of donor supervision of the upcoming February 2011 elections.

“This is just a farce because whom are you supervising? Who can supervise me? Who has got more experience than myself? Politely just ignore them but it is really pretentious to say the least” Gen. Museveni said.

Ugandan civil society groups have consistently alleged that Uganda’s last presidential elections were not free and fair.

A post-election report issued by the Democracy Monitoring Group in 2006 documented several irregularities throughout the voting process, including the use of underage voters. The report notes one incident in particular, where “50 school children who appeared under-age but whose names were on the register voted.”

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