By Spy Uganda
Kampala: The New Year was off to a harrowing start for Eva Basiima, wife of award-winning Ugandan author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. She had not heard from her husband since his arrest last week after the satirical novelist disparaged Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his ‘powerful’ son in social media posts.
When she saw her husband again on Monday, Basiima was left traumatised.
Nearly a week after his December 28 arrest, security forces brought Rukirabashaija home while they conducted a search of his home. The 33-year-old novelist and winner of the prestigious 2021 PEN Pinter Prize displayed visible signs of torture, according to his wife.
“He was in a bad state … I broke down. I’ve never been so broken like yesterday,” Basiima said. “His legs were swollen, he looked starved. He was trying to show me under his feet, his soles, they were very badly bruised. He was in handcuffs and wearing the same clothes he was wearing on December 28, when he left us.”
While security officials searched the house for nearly three hours, overturning everything and terrifying the couple’s three young children, Rukirabashaija was allowed to use the toilet. He was then granted permission to take a shower – with an officer in the bathroom – since he hadn’t been able to wash himself or even brush his teeth for nearly a week.
“He refreshed [himself] and left his clothes in the bathroom. I looked at them, they were filled with blood, there were dried bloodstains on his clothes. I took them and I kept them as evidence,” explained Basiima.
Within hours, images of her husband’s blood-stained shirt and underpants circulated on Twitter. In a message alerting the international community, Rukirabashaija’s lawyer Eron Kiiza on Monday posted photographs of the clothes and condemned “the heinous torture” of his client.
During the house search, Basiima was not able to speak to her husband privately or at length. But she saw sharp piercings on the soles of his feet, leading her to suspect her husband was made to walk on nails. His stained underpants have sparked fears that he is urinating blood due to internal injuries.
Experiencing & Writing About Torture
The signs of torture, including bruises and a damaged kidney, were unfortunately familiar to Basiima. This is the third time the Ugandan author has been arrested over the past two years. He has claimed that he was tortured during all of his arrests.
In April 2020, Rukirabashaija was detained and questioned about his novel, “The Greedy Barbarian”, which takes on themes of high-level corruption in a fictional country.
Following his release, the author wrote about his experience with torture in another book, “Banana Republic: Where Writing Is Treasonous”. In September 2020 he was arrested again, interrogated about his second novel, and released under a bond requiring him to report to the police on a weekly basis for an indefinite period.
Rukirabashaija’s fearless drive to speak truth to power was internationally recognised last year, when he was awarded the PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage prize in October 2021.
Two months later he was detained again while driving from his home in Iganga, where he had celebrated Christmas, to the capital Kampala.
‘Unconditional’ Release Order, But No Freedom
Under Ugandan law, detainees can be held for 48 hours without charges. But Basiima had heard nothing about the case, nor had she seen or heard from her husband until his shocking appearance on Monday morning, nearly a week after his arrest.
During the house search, the 33-year-old kept badgering security officers for details of the charges against her husband. They declined to answer and told her instead that the charges would be filed in a Kampala court later Monday. When they left, Basiima made the 120-kilometre journey from Iganga to Kampala, but there was no court hearing. She returned home shortly after midnight.
On Tuesday, a Kampala court ruled in Rukirabashaija’s favour in a civil complaint against his illegal detention without charges. Magistrate Irene Nambatya ruled that the Ugandan writer should be “unconditionally” released, adding: “Every police officer should comply with the above order.”
But hours after the ruling, Kiiza said his client had not been released. Rukirabashaija was due to appear in a separate criminal court on Tuesday but he did not show up, the human rights lawyer noted.
“No formal charges have been filed – that can only be done when he is brought to court. They can still go ahead and charge him. The highest likelihood is they will charge him. Police fear-producing him in court with torture marks, that’s why they are delaying bringing him to court,” explained Kiiza.
Since Rukirabashaija’s arrest, Kiiza says has been denied access to his client.
Meanwhile, Charles Twiine, spokesman for the Police Criminal Investigations Department (CID), told reporters in Kampala that Rukirabashaija was to be charged under the Computer Misuse Act with an offence that can carry up to a year in jail.
International Eye On Uganda?
The East African country has long been a major recipient of US foreign aid and security assistance, particularly for counterterrorism operations in the region, notably in Somalia.
But in recent times, there are signs that Washington’s patience with the Museveni administration’s violations is wearing thin. Following the latest pre-election crackdown on opposition supporters, which killed more than 50 people, Museveni failed to make it on US President Joe Biden’s list of invitees to the December 2021 Summit for Democracy.
Last month the US announced sanctions against Uganda’s military intelligence chief, Major General Abel Kandiho, citing his involvement in serious human rights abuses including beatings, sexual assault and torture.
But from her home in Iganga – where she is struggling to reassure her three young children, traumatised by the sight of their badly beaten father brought home by security officers – Basiima said she would like the international community to do more. “In my humble opinion, justice must prevail,” she said slowly between sobs. “I’m requesting the international community to fight for justice and for any help that can be rendered to us.”