The long-running campaign to free political prisoners, especially those affiliated with the National Unity Platform, has been characterized by disappointment and crushed dreams. The only offence for many of these people, who were jailed by the state nearly three years ago, was that they openly opposed the ruling regime and supported other political movements.

Politicians from different factions have frequently promised liberation in the face of this injustice. However, these promises have often shown to be hollow platitudes, leaving the imprisoned and their families disappointed and alone.

The unscrupulous exploitation of these prisoners’ misery by opportunistic entrants to the political arena is particularly depressing. Rather than sincerely calling for their release, these new ministers regard them as props in their campaign for public approval and validation. Their devotion and sincerity are insufficient to bring about real change, thus their promises come across as empty.

As this is going on, the political prisoners suffer in custody, having their rights denied and their voices muffled. Their fight for justice has been complicated by the schemes of those who seek power, which has made their suffering even worse and prolonged their wrongful detention.

As the public observes, sincere attempts to preserve the values of justice, freedom, and democracy for all citizens—regardless of their political views—are the real litmus test for leadership, not hollow declarations made for political advantage.

More than thirty Ugandans have been detained in jails; some are awaiting trial, while others have been involved in proceedings before military courts. On July 21, 2022, the situation reached a tipping point when Norbert Mao, the leader of the Democratic Party and a longtime opponent of the current government, shocked everyone by declaring his intention to unite with it. His intention in making this unannounced move was to use his elevated status to push for the release of all political prisoners.

Following his appointment, Mao explained that he had joined the National Resistance Movement as a calculated step to help ease the country out of President Museveni’s entrenched 37-year control. His dedication to promoting the release of political prisoners was at the centre of his agenda.

Mao moved quickly to intervene in his capacity as Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs. His first action was to ask President Museveni for permission to form a permanent Cabinet committee that would focus on human rights matters.

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Nine people make up this committee, which Mao leads. Notable individuals include the Attorney General, the Minister of Internal Affairs, and the Secretary General of the National Resistance Movement, which is currently in power. Furthermore, Mao obtained authorization to interact with the National Security Council, an organization made up of senior police officers and UPDF generals. These exchanges demonstrated Mao’s aggressive stance on human rights issues and the promotion of discourse at the highest governmental levels.

However, despite all these efforts he made during his first year in office as a minister of Constitutional Affairs and promised the country that there would be no more trials of civilians in the court-martial, all was in vain. The military has maintained its grip on these political prisoners and are still tried in military courts.

Since October of last year, the minister has notably refrained from speaking publicly on the NUP political detainees. He had announced in September last year that he intended to follow through on his promise to stop the trial of members of the National Unity Platform (NUP) in the Military Court Martial. But despite his earlier pledge, nothing much has changed or been said in public on the matter since.

The recent appointment of Balaam Barugahara as the new Minister of Youth Affairs has reignited discussions surrounding the plight of NUP political prisoners. Strategically, the new minister used a NUP member, Ali Katerega, to champion his cause of releasing political prisoners in front of the president.

This calculated move by Balaam proved highly effective, as Katerega’s advocacy for the release of NUP political prisoners opened doors for the minister to be seen as a new messiah in the faces of the families of the detainees and Ugandans yearning for their release. Politically, this manoeuvre has shifted public perception away from Balaam’s political affiliations, casting him instead as a hero fighting for the freedom of innocent Ugandans imprisoned by the government is now serving.

On his inaugural day in Parliament, he wasted no time in requesting a comprehensive list of all NUP political prisoners, a request that was promptly fulfilled. His commanding presence and unwavering confidence on the parliamentary floor led many Ugandans to believe that the release of NUP political prisoners was imminent, with some even speculating that it would happen before the Idi celebrations.

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However, in that same week, many were surprised to learn that the court-martial trials of NUP political prisoners in Makindye went on unhindered while Balaam was aggressively encouraging the public through the media that the president was inclined to release all political detainees. Still, in that same week, the military court denied civilian political prisoners bail and sent them back to imprisonment, all the while trying them with an apparent lack of concern despite the assurances.

This disparity between Balaam’s assurances and the persistent difficulties has instilled significant scepticism among the public about his ability to uphold his commitments, leading to analogies with Mao’s earlier endeavours that ultimately fell short. Citing the failure of the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Mao to secure the release of NUP political prisoners, what can the Minister of Youth Affairs Balaam do differently?

Struggles, Trials, and Hope Amidst Political Turmoil

In April and May of 2023, shortly before or after President Yoweri Museveni took office for a fifth term, the political prisoners in question were placed under arrest. A few technicians are mixed in with people from more common backgrounds, such as boda boda motorbike taxi drivers and small-time city vendors. Among them are notable individuals like as Olivia Lutaya, Katabi Swaibu, Mafabi David, Sekitoleko Yasin and others.

Olivia Lutaya, for example, has spent 35 months behind bars. She is not a military member, but she and several civilians are being tried in a military court-martial on charges of possessing thirteen explosive devices illegally.

At first, they were charged with conspiring to obstruct President Yoweri Museveni’s inauguration by state security personnel. The details of this case are still unknown, though, since Olivia continues to insist that the accusations made against them are untrue.

These people are in a dire predicament, with their fundamental rights and freedoms being violated against a backdrop of political unrest and repression. Their protracted detention and the nature of the allegations serve as further evidence of this.

The post Release of NUP Political Prisoners; Can Balaam Do What Minister Mao Failed? appeared first on Watchdog Uganda.

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