Ugandan Opposition Leader Bobi Wine Tear-Gassed During Zoom Call

Dozens of journalists were watching live as police fired shots in the air.
January 7, 2021, 6:21pm
Police officers interrupt Bobi Wine's press conference.
Police officers interrupt Bobi Wine's press conference. Photo: Screenshot

An online press conference in which Ugandan presidential candidate Bobi Wine asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the current administration was halted when he was forcefully pulled out of his vehicle by police and tear-gassed.

Dozens of journalists watched on Zoom as police officers shouted at Wine and repeatedly shot bullets in the air behind him, while he asked for the camera to keep rolling.

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The 38-year-old was wearing a ballistics helmet and flak jacket, which he says is now necessary for his own protection.

“The biggest safety that we get is having cameras around us,” he said. “The polls are in seven days now. My most important mission is to be alive.”

Uganda’s most anticipated election in decades will take place on the 14th of January. It will pit Wine — a hugely popular musician, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi — against current president Yoweri Museveni, a 76-year-old who has been in power since 1986. Though he initially promised a return to democracy, Museveni has overseen presidential term limits being abolished and age limits removed, all so he can stay in power.

One week ahead of the vote, opposition figures announced that they have filed a submission to the ICC, calling for Museveni and a series of other individuals associated with the military, police and government, to be investigated and charged with crimes against humanity.

Wine said he wanted to stop people from being “massacred.” 

At least 54 civilians were killed by police and security forces in November when protests broke out after Wine was arrested and accused of violating coronavirus restrictions. The victims included children, according to Bruce I. Afran, the US-based attorney who drafted the ICC submission. 

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At the time, security minister Elly Tumwine, who is named in the document, said that police had a right to shoot and kill protesters if they “reached a certain level of violence… Can I repeat? Police have a right to shoot you and you die for nothing.... do it at your own risk.”

Various other opposition supporters have been killed or injured throughout the last year of campaigning. 

An early, 41-page draft of the ICC submission was shown to VICE World News. It says it was written on behalf of Wine; Amos Katumba, the CEO of an organisation called Caring Hearts Uganda; and opposition MP Francis Zaake.

It calls for an investigation into “acts of abuse and torture; arbitrary arrest; mutilation and murder of civilian protestors; arrest and beatings of political figures” — all of which it says are connected to the current campaign for the position of president.

The filing references multiple assassination attempts against Wine, including one, in mid-2018, when his driver, Yassin Kawuma, was shot dead, after which Wine says he was tortured.  

It lists ten potential individuals to investigate, including Museveni; Tumwine; James Birungi, the commander of the Special Forces Command; Abel Kandiho, the chief of military intelligence; and police commissioner Frank Mwesigwa.

It also accuses Museveni of “inciting violence,” including by threatening to “crush” protesters and saying beating political opposition figures is acceptable if done “in the right way.”

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While accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency, in early November, Museveni again threatened to use violence. “I am already president and want to come back… Nobody has more guns than us,” he said.

The ICC is based in the Hague. It was set up under the 1998 Rome Statute and has the mandate of prosecuting serious crimes that are of concern to the international community, including crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Anyone can send information about potential crimes to the ICC prosecutor.

Since the court was set up, it has received roughly 800 submissions each year, around 41 of which go on for further analysis. The process is long: the prosecutor may first open a preliminary examination, before moving on to an official investigation, potentially bringing charges only after that.

On Thursday, Wine was speaking from his car in Bugembe, southeastern Uganda, after a day of campaigning. As he tried to explain his reasons for wanting to make the submission, a cop came to the window and began to shout at him, accusing him of parking illegally. 

“I am on an international press conference. You are embarrassing the country. What you’re doing is wrong. What you’re doing is illegal,” Wine responded, later turning to the camera and saying this was an example of the constant harassment he experiences. 

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The policeman then pulled Wine out of the car. His camera turned off, but gunfire and pops of tear gas could be heard, before Wine managed to switch his camera on again, his eyes red.

“I hope that the voices of the people of Uganda can be respected,” he said as more bullets were visibly fired. “I hope I will be able to cast my vote and I hope that the people’s voice will be respected.”

Uganda is a signatory to the ICC. The court’s first indictments included Joseph Kony, the leader of the northern Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

On February 4, the ICC is set to rule on another case involving Uganda. Former child soldier-turned LRA commander Dominic Ongwen will receive a verdict on 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His supporters argue that Ongwen, who was abducted as a child, should have been protected by the government. Instead, they say, Uganda’s military treated him as a combatant from the time he was kidnapped.

Zaake, the 29-year-old MP also represented in the submission, was arrested in April after attempting to distribute food to hungry constituents. Museveni had announced that anyone giving out food during the coronavirus lockdown, without going through the government, would be charged with “attempted murder” for gathering crowds. 

“You can’t just look at your people starving,” Zaake said.

He was held in detention for the next ten days. In an interview with VICE World News in August, Zaake displayed his ongoing injuries from alleged torture. He said an unknown liquid had been sprayed in his eyes, requiring him to wear sunglasses indoors, and he walked with crutches.

Zaake accused the government of using the coronavirus pandemic to “entrench themselves in power.” During the election, he predicted they were going to kill more Ugandans “than ever before… And in the end, they are going to declare themselves as winners.”