Press Release — Uganda: Drop "Cyber-Harassment" Charges Against Activist for Facebook Posts
NEW YORK — The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) condemns the arbitrary arrest of women’s rights activist and researcher Dr. Stella Nyanzi, and calls on the Ugandan government to drop all charges against her. On April 7, Nyanzi was arrested violently and without a warrant by plain clothes security agents and brought to a police station on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda. She was arrested for calling President Museveni a “pair of buttocks” in a Facebook post, and for several earlier social media posts from January and February, in which she criticized Museveni and his wife, who is also the Minister of Education. Nyanzi was held incommunicado for 18 hours and eventually charged with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication" three days after her arrest.
On April 10, a state attorney asked the court to have Nyanzi’s mental health assessed, citing the outdated 1938 Mental Treatment Act. Her lawyer confirmed to HRF that the request is a bad faith attempt to discredit Nyanzi’s work and harm her reputation.
“In Uganda, if you criticize the president or any member of his ruling cabal, you can be accused of being insane. By questioning a dissident’s mental health, Museveni aims to discredit and dismiss anyone who dares to hold the dictatorship accountable for its kleptocratic actions,” stated HRF president Thor Halvorssen. “Dr. Nyanzi’s posts give voice to the many Ugandans who are afraid of being vocal against the Museveni regime. All charges against her should be dropped immediately,” added Halvorssen.
Because the prosecution asked for a mental health assessment, the magistrate denied Nyanzi’s bail application and kept her in custody at the Luzira Maximum Security Prison. A high court judge also denied Nyanzi’s bail application, ordering her to return to the magistrate’s court for further trial. If found guilty on both charges, Nyanzi would be sentenced to up to four years in prison. On May 10, she was released on bail and will return to court for her next hearing on May 25.
Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda ever since the military coup in 1986. Nyanzi’s arrest fits into his government’s pattern of intolerance toward criticism. Nyanzi was arrested under the 2011 Computer Misuse Act that imposed a strict censorship regime on online speech. In 2016, during the rigged election that led to Museveni’s controversial fifth term, state authorities imposed a social media blackout to curb free speech online.
Additionally, Nyanzi has become a target because of her work advocating women’s rights and LGBT rights. In 2014, Uganda passed a bill that criminalized the existence and work of organizations that protect sexual minorities. In February 2017, Nyanzi launched the #padsforgirlsUG campaign as a reaction to the Musevenis’ failed promise to provide sanitary pads to girls to keep them in schools. Nyanzi was arrested after giving a speech at a fundraiser event for this cause, and recently lost her research position at the University of Makerere for engaging in an argument on that topic on Twitter with the president’s wife.
“Uganda’s Computer Misuse Act is used as a tool to criminalize legitimate criticism of the government on social media,” said Celine Assaf Boustani, international legal associate at HRF. “The law includes overly broad charges such as ‘cyber-harassment’ and ‘offensive communication’ that are often used against dissidents and activists. Abusing the law in this way amounts to criminal defamation and constitutes a violation of international law. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Uganda must uphold its commitment to protect freedom of expression.”
HRF has partnered with Kuchu Times, a Ugandan human rights organization focused on LGBT rights, to develop human rights guides tailored to educate the Ugandan people on their basic individual rights under international law. The guides will be disseminated online and in print form.
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.
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Condemn the arbitrary arrest of Dr. Stella Nyanzi
Call on the Ugandan government to drop all charges against her
Tom Onyai Manano, Counsellor, UN Third Committee Issues (social, humanitarian affairs, and human rights), Permanent Mission of Uganda to the UN
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Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs
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Kamateeka Jovah Karamagi, Member of standing committee on human rights, Uganda’s Parliament
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Nalule Juuko Safia, Member of standing committee on human rights, Uganda’s Parliament
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