Olara Otunnu, the Ugandan opposition leader who plans to run against President Yoweri Museveni, is shielding himself from charges of sedition and promoting sectarianism by alleging political persecution, the presidency said.
Otunnu, president of the Uganda Peoples’ Congress party, said in an interview from Aspen, Colorado, yesterday that he plans to return to Uganda to face what he called “trumped up” charges against him. He said his arrest warrant stems from Museveni’s fear of being defeated in next year’s vote.
“Many opposition politicians have a wrong perception about the law,” Tames Mirudi, Museveni’s spokesman, said today from the capital, Kampala. “These people wrongly believe that once you are a presidential candidate you get political immunity. Otunnu must appear before court and answer the charges. It’s only the president who enjoys political immunity.”
Otunnu was initially ordered to appear in court last week in the East African nation after he refused two requests to meet with police about remarks he made in a radio interview in April. During the broadcast, he called for independent probes into atrocities in northern and central Uganda and the killing of civilians in Kampala in September. Calls to Otunnu today were unanswered and his mobile-phone was not taking messages.
“A person who wants to disqualify you doesn’t bring a simple case,” Mirudi said in a telephone interview. “These are civil cases where you can pay and then stand.”
The charges are “against standard legal practice” because both laws are being challenged in Uganda’s Constitutional Court, Otunnu said yesterday. “I have no problem whatsoever facing the charges that have been put against me. I would hope that the law would be allowed to take its course.”
Ugandan authorities ordered Otunnu, 59, to be arrested and brought before court on Aug. 17. He said he did not appear in court on Aug. 3 because he had a pre-arranged trip to the U.S. and his lawyers requested a postponement. Otunnu, former United Nations under-secretary general for children and armed conflict, said he plans to return to Uganda before his court date.
Otunnu said in an interview in April with Voice of Lango, a closely held broadcaster based in Lira, northern Uganda, that some members of Uganda’s armed forces were involved in atrocities during the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group.
Ugandan troops have battled a two-decade insurgency in the north of the country by LRA members. The group, led by Joseph Kony, rose up against the government after Museveni in the 1980s purged the army of members of the Acholi community, whose interests the LRA says it is defending.
Kony, a former Catholic altar boy who says the LRA is inspired by the Ten Commandments, faces International Criminal Court charges of murder, mutilation, rape and the abduction of thousands of children for use as soldiers.
Uganda, with a population of 32 million and a $16.6 billion economy, has been ruled by Museveni since January 1986. The country is Africa’s biggest grower of robusta coffee and is set to become an oil producer when London-based Tullow Oil Plc begins production at the Kasamene field next year.