Olara Otunnu, a Ugandan opposition leader, won a plea to suspend an arrest warrant against him, as upcoming elections become the second in a row to involve legal charges against an opponent to longstanding President Yoweri Museveni.
Otunnu, 59, president of the Uganda Peoples Congress party, is charged with sedition and promoting sectarianism for allegations he made against Museveni in April on a northern Ugandan radio station. He said he plans to challenge Museveni’s 25-year rule at elections in February, even if it means facing imprisonment, “false charges” or an assassination attempt.
“It’s outrageous that there is an arrest warrant against me, but it will not stop me from going back to Uganda,” Otunnu said in an interview in New York before traveling to Europe. “Mr. Museveni can’t keep me away.”
Otunnu alleged in the interview and in a request to the International Criminal Court in The Hague that Museveni’s army helped foment a war in northern Uganda to exterminate the Acholi ethnic group. A May poll by the Daily Monitor newspaper showed him with 4 percent of the vote, behind Kizza Besigye, leader of the Forum for Democratic Change, who had 35 percent.
Besigye was arrested in 2005 after his return from South Africa following four years of self-imposed exile, before being released in time to compete against Museveni in 2006. Uganda’s High Court acquitted Besigye of rape after the election, while charges of treason are still pending.
In an Aug. 11 interview, Otunnu, a former United Nations under-secretary general for children and armed conflict, said the charges against him were moot because they were being reviewed by the Constitutional Court.
Judge Amos Twinomujuni today reserved his ruling on whether Otunnu can be tried in a district court on the charges of sedition and promoting sectarianism pending an Aug. 27 decision on challenges to both laws.
“The justice decided to reserve the ruling to Aug. 27,” Joseph Bossa, secretary-general of Otunnu’s party, said in a phone interview today. “In the meantime, he stayed the warrant of arrest and the proceeding in the Lira court.”
Otunnu says the charges against him stem from an April interview with Voice of Lango, a closely held broadcaster based in Lira, northern Uganda, in which he said some members of Uganda’s army were involved in atrocities in the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army. The conflict has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people and forced 2 million people to flee their homes, according to Oxfam, the Oxford, England-based charity.
The leader of the LRA, Joseph Kony, has been wanted since 2005 by the ICC on charges of murder, mutilation, rape and the abduction of thousands of children to use as soldiers. He’s still at large.
Museveni asked radio-station owner Felix Okot Ogong to publicly apologize after the broadcast in which Otunnu also accused the government of committing genocide during the war, according to a May 2010 report from Human Rights Watch that called Uganda “a media minefield.” Ogong is a former youth minister in Museveni’s Cabinet and a member of the ruling National Resistance Movement.
The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is looking into crimes allegedly committed by Uganda’s army, the Uganda People’s Defense Force, ICC spokeswoman Florence Olara said in a statement.
As a former UN official, “Otunnu has a huge international following with a lot of friends in high places, so to the extent he can show some of the political repression in Uganda to the world community, that’s good,” said Maria Burnett, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group.
Drawing attention to his remarks is a calculated risk for Otunnu, said Robert Bates, a professor of government and African politics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
“If this accusation gets legs, it will stir up a hornet’s nest” of controversy in Uganda, Bates said in an interview. “If Otunnu makes himself a target either politically or physically, then he could become a factor in the elections.”
Politically motivated arrest, lengthy pretrial detention, unfair trials and restrictions on freedom of speech are “serious” problems in Uganda, the State Department said in a March report.
Otunnu also wants an investigation of the military’s efforts to break up a September political protest in Kampala that left more than 1,000 people detained and more than 40 dead, according to Human Rights Watch.
Tamale Mirundi, Museveni’s spokesman, said Otunnu is shielding himself from legitimate cases by claiming harassment.
“Otunnu should answer the charges because he is not the law,” he said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t mean that when you become a presidential aspirant you enjoy immunity against prosecution. Immunity is only enjoyed by the president.”
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. The country has an estimated 2 billion barrels of oil, with 800 million barrels already discovered, according to Tullow.