The Ugandan presidential candidate Bobi Wine and his campaign team have been arrested in the country’s central region, the leading opposition figure reported on Twitter.
Wine, a popular musician whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was detained in Kalangala while campaigning for January’s elections.
As news of Wine’s arrest spread, there were reports of protests and police using teargas against demonstrators.
The country’s long-term president, Yoweri Museveni, who has held power since 1986, faces a strong challenge from Wine, who has rallied impoverished young people. Efforts to intimidate Wine since he announced his candidacy have included him being arrested several times, on the first occasion only minutes after his formal nomination in the capital, Kampala.
While details of the arrests were not immediately available, Joel Senyonyi, a spokesman for Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform, said: “Police has arrested him together with his whole campaign team. They put them in police trucks and started driving but we don’t know where they are taking them.”
Fred Enanga, a police spokesman, was not immediately available for comment. Political intimidation of opposition figures has been a feature of Uganda’s political landscape, not least during periods of election campaigning.
Wine’s latest arrest follows the decision by electoral authorities to ban campaign events in some urban areas, including Kampala, citing the need to control the spread of the coronavirus.
That decision was criticised by some who see it as a ploy to prevent opposition figures from displaying their support in areas where the ruling party is not so popular.
Wine has emerged as the strongest challenger to Museveni in the presidential election on 14 January. He has urged the 76-year-old incumbent to retire peacefully, saying his time is over. But Museveni’s supporters say he is their best candidate, citing his popularity in many rural areas and with older voters.
In November, at least 54 people died after protests erupted after Wine’s brief detention over an alleged violation of Covid-19-related social distancing measures.
Police said at the time they had arrested nearly 600 people and accused protesters, whom authorities had enlisted the help of the military to disperse, of rioting and looting.
On Tuesday, UN human rights experts called on Uganda to rein in security forces and drop charges against political opponents and activists arrested in what the experts called an election clampdown.
“We are gravely concerned by the election-related violence, the excessive use of force by security personnel, as well as the increasing crackdown on peaceful protesters, political and civil society leaders and human rights defenders,” the UN group said on Tuesday.
It added: “Since the publication of the guidelines on the conduct of elections during Covid-19 in June by the Uganda electoral commission, we have witnessed gradual shrinking of civic space, and misuse and abuse of health-related restrictions to curb dissent in the country.”
Wine’s arrest came as a prominent rights lawyer who was jailed in Uganda on criminal charges was bailed on Wednesday amid intense pressure from the international community and watchdog groups urging authorities to respect human rights in the run-up to the elections.
Nicholas Opiyo had spent a week in prison, charged with money laundering after officials queried a $340,000 (£250,000) transfer into a bank account held by the rights group he leads. His lawyers say he is innocent, and his group, Chapter Four Uganda, calls the charges frivolous.
Opiyo has represented pro-democracy activists, opposition figures and minority groups. He is notably one of a few lawyers known to represent gay, lesbian and bisexual clients in a country where same-sex relations are criminalised.
Critics of the government insist Opiyo is targeted because of his work tracking alleged rights abuses by security forces before the elections.
Museveni, for decades a US security ally, has alleged that outside groups are meddling in politics, a claim echoed by other officials. Wine and other opposition figures are accused of being under the influence of western governments seeking regime change.
Museveni is able to seek more time in office after lawmakers removed the last constitutional obstacle – age limits – to a possible life presidency.