Ugandan pop star charged with treason

The Ugandan government has filed a charge of treason against a pop star-turned-lawmaker who has emerged as a major critic of the long-serving president.

Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known as Bobi Wine, has been a strong critic of the president

Musician turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, has been charged with treason. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images)

The Ugandan government has filed a charge of treason against a pop star-turned-lawmaker who has emerged as a major critic of the long-serving president and whose jailing drew outrage from top musicians around the world.

Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine, was visibly weak and struggled to walk into court from what his lawyer said was a severe beating while in custody. The government denied it.

It was the first time Ssentamu had been seen in public since he was detained on Aug. 13, and he clenched his fists as he greeted supporters. A colleague wrapped a scarf in the colours of Uganda's national flag around his shoulders.

Ssentamu, centre, arrives at a magistrate's court in Gulu, northern Uganda. (Associated Press)

The 36-year-old was arrested with other lawmakers while campaigning for a candidate. He was charged with illegal possession of firearms for his alleged role in an incident in which the motorcade of President Yoweri Museveni was pelted with stones.

Ssentamu, who was elected to parliament last year, has emerged as an influential critic of Museveni, especially among many educated youth who cannot find work in Uganda, where hospitals often lack basic medicines, and main roads are dangerously potholed.

Ssentamu shakes hands with his supporters in a suburb of Kampala on June 30, 2017. (Isaac Kasamani/AFP/Getty Images)

In his music video Freedom, he sings from behind bars: "We are fed up with those who oppress our lives."

He has protested an unpopular social media tax as well as a change to the constitution that removed the presidential age limit of 75. That provision allows the 74-year-old Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, to seek re-election in 2021.

The arrest sparked protests demanding his release in the capital, Kampala, and elsewhere. Scores of people were detained as security forces cracked down on demonstrators. Dozens of top musicians, including Angelique Kidjo, Chris Martin, Chrissie Hynde and Brian Eno, signed a letter demanding Ssentamu's release. A social media campaign to #FreeBobiWine was launched.

In Kampala's Kisekka Market area on Thursday, protesters held posters of Ssentamu, praising him as the "People's Voice."

Demonstrations also took place in Nairobi and London.

Kenyan activists and civil society groups protest in solidarity with Ssentamu in a march to the Ugandan Embassy in Nairobi, Thursday. (Khalil Senosi/Associated Press)

A military court in the northern town of Gulu dropped the weapons charges, but Ssentamu was quickly rearrested, taken to a magistrate's court and charged with treason, which carries the death penalty.

He needed help to walk into court and appeared to cry at one point. He sat in the dock in magistrate's court, with his lawyers saying he was unable to stand on his own.

4 others also arrested

Ssentamu was arrested with four other opposition lawmakers, three of whom also face treason charges. A fifth legislator has been hospitalized with injuries allegedly sustained during detention.

The magistrate ruled Ssentamu should be allowed to see his own doctors, and he was remanded into custody until Aug. 30.

One of Ssentamu's attorneys, Medard Sseggona said medical treatment abroad is desirable, but that Ssentamu first needs to go to a private Ugandan health facility.

"As to whether they can do it is a different matter," he said.

Other opposition figures expressed concern about being targeted by security forces as Museveni's government has come under pressure in the Ssentamu case.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni speaks at a special party conference of South Sudan's ruling party, during a visit to Juba, South Sudan, on May 3. (Bullen Chol/Associated Press)

"Every way out of my home is barricaded since very early today," tweeted Kizza Besigye, a four-time presidential challenger who has been jailed many times.

Police spokesperson Emilian Kayima later said Besigye was arrested when he tried to force his way out. The spokesperson said forces also were deployed at the homes of certain Ugandans after receiving intelligence that some "wanted to engage in criminal activities."

Detained while campaigning

​Ssentamu's arrest came after he was campaigning for a lawmaker in the northwestern town of Arua. Museveni also was in Arua at the time, campaigning for a rival candidate who eventually lost.

While the president was departing, authorities said, his motorcade was pelted with stones by people associated with Ssentamu and the candidate he backed, Kassiano Wadri.

Ssentamu's driver was shot and killed, allegedly by security forces.

In a statement late Wednesday, Museveni accused "unprincipled politicians" of luring youth into rioting. Addressing calls on social media to free Ssentamu, he said he had no power to do so.

"Let us therefore wait for the courts and see what they decide," Museveni said.

Museveni, a U.S. ally on regional security, has been elected five times. Although he has campaigned on a record of establishing peace and stability, some worry that those gains are being eroded the longer he stays in power.