An award-winning Ugandan author who fled the country after being charged with insulting President Yoweri Museveni and his son has arrived in Germany to seek medical treatment after being “tortured” in jail, his lawyer said Wednesday.
“He arrived in Germany this morning,” Eron Kiiza, the lawyer for Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, said, describing the news as “a big relief”.
The novelist was detained shortly after Christmas and later charged with “offensive communication” in a case that has raised international concern.
The EU was among those calling for a “comprehensive investigation” into rights abuses in Uganda.
Rukirabashaija, 33, slipped out of Uganda two weeks ago – after a court denied his application to have his passport returned – ahead of a criminal trial that was due to begin today.
He said he was tortured in custody and appeared on television earlier this month to reveal painful-looking welts criss-crossing his back and scars on other parts of his body.
Rukirabashaija, who was released on bail last month, fled Uganda by walking into neighbouring Rwanda across the hilly border and then travelled to a third country.
Following that, the UN Refugee Agency facilitated his journey to Germany, according to Kiiza who declined to provide further details.
The charges against Rukirabashaija relate to unflattering comments on Twitter about Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986, and his powerful son Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
In one post, he described Kainerugaba, a general who many Ugandans believe is positioning himself to take over from his 77-year-old father, as “obese” and a “curmudgeon”.
The novelist previously said that he planned to return home after getting medical treatment.
“I’ve been diagnosed with damaged kidneys, bruised ribs and post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said in a phone interview from a secret location earlier this month.
He has described being beaten with batons, forced to dance for hours at a time, attacked with pliers used to tear at his flesh and injected repeatedly with an unknown substance.
“I don’t know whether I was poisoned. I’m not feeling fine,” he said.
Since he fled, Rukirabashaija has been tweeting relentlessly, even becoming embroiled in a Twitter spat with Kainerugaba whom he accused of being “in charge” of his torture and branding him a “baby despot”.
Rights campaigners have called for an investigation into his claims of torture and urged the authorities to drop all charges against him.
“It is intolerable that Ugandan security forces are still torturing and ill-treating detainees,” Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement earlier this month.
“Instead of prosecuting their critics over tweets, the Ugandan authorities should be investigating this and many other serious allegations of torture by state security in recent years.”
Rukirabashaija told the rights group that he was taken to see Kainerugaba during his detention and instructed to stop writing, but the general denied the claim.
“I don’t know who this young boy is whom they say was beaten! I never heard of him until the media started talking about him. I’ve never met him or talked to him and I have no desire to do so,” Kainerugaba said on Twitter.
Uganda has witnessed a series of crackdowns aimed at stamping out dissent, with journalists attacked, lawyers jailed, election monitors prosecuted and opposition leaders violently muzzled.
Activists have been repeatedly targeted using the strict Computer Misuse Act which was used against Rukirabashaija and which carries heavy penalties, including jail time.
Outspoken Ugandan activist and writer Stella Nyanzi, who fled to Germany earlier this year, was imprisoned in 2019 under the same law after posting a profane poem about Museveni.
Rukirabashaija won acclaim for his 2020 satirical novel The Greedy Barbarian, which describes high-level corruption in a fictional country.
He has been repeatedly arrested since The Greedy Barbarian was published and said he was previously tortured while being interrogated by military intelligence.
He was awarded the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage, which is presented annually to a writer who has been persecuted for speaking out about his beliefs, and PEN’s German branch has campaigned in his support.