Uganda's opposition leader in the dock

Uganda’s detained opposition leader was expected to appear before a military tribunal and a civilian court on Monday for the start of two trials on charges that could result in a death sentence.

But Kizza Besigye’s lawyers said they would not join him at the military court because Uganda’s High Court has ordered it to suspend the proceeding.

Besigye, the first credible challenger to President Yoweri Museveni’s 19-year rule, was detained on November 14 and charged with treason and rape in a civilian court. He had returned from self-imposed exile to run for president in next year’s election.

He later was also accused of terrorism and illegal possession of firearms in a military court that is controlled by trusted aides to Museveni. If convicted on terrorism or treason charges, he could face the death penalty.

On December 2, the High Court ordered the military to suspend its trial until the Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest court, rules on whether the proceeding is legal.
Hearings for the first of two constitutional challenges are expected to begin on Tuesday.

But army spokesperson Major Felix Kulayigye said on Saturday that the army will go ahead with the trial because the High Court and the military’s General Court Martial that will try him Monday have equal powers.

Defence lawyer Yusuf Nsibambi disagreed. He said the court martial has powers to hear charges stemming from the law that regulates the function and conduct of the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces.

But Besigye and 22 co-defendants are charged with offences not covered by the Act regulating the military, Nsibambi said.

“We do not want to be part of those proceedings. If they proceed with the hearing at the court martial, it will be in bad faith because the High Court has already suspended those proceedings,” said Nsibambi.

“We do not want to lend legitimacy to the proceedings.” he said.

“We are not just stubborn. It is really a question of jurisdiction,” he said.

Besigye, a doctor, has been nominated to run against Museveni, his former ally and patient, in elections set for February 23.

His wife, supporters and lawyers say the timing of the charges was intended to prevent him from campaigning effectively and ultimately eliminate him from the presidential race.

“The alleged offences [at the civilian and military courts] are based on the same alleged facts ... that is double jeopardy, really. It is persecution,” Nsibambi said.

On Sunday, Besigye’s wife and defence lawyers protested that prison officials have curtailed his right to confidential access to lawyers and insist on reading all documents that attorneys take to him during preparation for his trial.

Two senior prison officers demand to sit within hearing distance when lawyers meet Besigye at the Luzira Maximum Security Prison to plot defence strategy, said his wife, Winnie Byanyima.

“It is just incredible that they have openly denied him all the usual rights of a prisoner. The state has placed charges against him, but he is forced to discuss his defence in front of state officials,” Byanyima said.

Assistant Commissioner for Prisons Wycliffe Kururagyire said the allegations were not true.

Museveni is under pressure from within his party as well as from Western donors to release Besigye. The concern is that the upcoming election would lack credibility if the main opposition candidate is imprisoned.

An opinion poll published last week by the pro-government Sunday Vision newspaper showed that Besigye has a 14-percentage point lead over Museveni in seven main towns. The margin of error was about five percentage points. - AP

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