‘He started it’ Museveni says, as he blames opposition leader for arrest

The Times of London
Nairobi, Kenya

A Ugandan police officer sprays Dr Kizza Besigye in his car (Stephen Wandera, AP)

President Museveni tried to justify the violent arrest of his principal opponent in Kampala last week by claiming yesterday that the incident had been provoked.

President Museveni said that Kizza Besigye started the attack on police that led to officers breaking his car windows and spraying him in the face with CS gas before arresting him.

“I think the lenses of CNN don’t see very well because they did not capture this opposition leader attacking the policemen,” Mr Museveni said. “It was that leader who started the attack.”

President Museveni’s claims contradicted what was witnessed by The Times on Thursday. I was among a group of foreign and local journalists who had been with Dr Besigye since dawn that day, reporting his latest “walk-to-work” protest.

After being threatened with arrest if he walked — in protest against rising fuel and food prices allegedly caused by corruption — Dr Besigye drove into town, slowing to wave at supporters and attracting a crowd of hundreds.

The police, with the help of a handful of soldiers, eventually blocked Dr Besigye’s vehicle at a roundabout next to the city’s main hospital. By 10am, with the police refusing to give ground and Dr Besigye refusing to back off, it was hard to imagine how it would end. While journalists milled about with cameras in hand and police in riot gear stood by, a man in civilian clothes stepped from the crowd.

He used a hammer to repeatedly smash at the left rear window of Dr Besigye’s car. When the hole was large enough he forced the head of the hammer through the broken glass to lever out the window, but Dr Besigye grabbed the hammer.

The opposition leader brandished it from within his car, threatening to hit the assailant, but then a second man stepped up to the right hand side of the car. He pulled out a pistol and smashed the window with the butt of the gun. He then took a can of CS gas from one of the riot police and sprayed Dr Besigye in the face. When the can was empty he stepped back and, laughing that he had used up the gas, ordered one of the policemen to do the same.

Dr Besigye stumbled, blinded, from the car. His bodyguards made an ineffective attempt to prevent him from being dragged off and Dr Besigye was shoved under a bench in the back of a police pick-up truck, a space more commonly used for corpses.

Photographers, television cameras, radio and print reporters all broadcast the incident that they had captured first-hand and the next day deadly riots exploded across Kampala as protesters expressed their anger at the way that Dr Besigye was treated.

Dr Besigye’s acts of defiance in recent weeks were provocative and perhaps designed to elicit a violent response from Uganda’s notoriously brutal security forces. To claim however, as Mr Museveni has, that the opposition leader was the first to attack, shows disregard for the truth and contempt for Ugandans.

Last night Dr Besigye vowed to continue with peaceful demonstrations. Speaking at the hospital in Nairobi where he is being treated, he said that he was determined to fight for the rights of Ugandans by peaceful demonstrations and walk-to-work protests.

“As I have said, what underlies it is the socio-economic crisis in our country,” he said. “The population is largely marginalised and is now protesting. I suspect that these activities will definitely continue in one form or another until there is adequate response.”

Dr Besigye said that he was aware of the threats on his life. “I know that my life is in danger, I have known this for a long time, I had to leave the country for four years after the 2001 elections. I lived in South Africa, I was followed in South Africa by an assassination squad and it was the South African Government that intervened and helped me to survive,” he said.

Dr Besigye denied that he began the gas attack. “I obviously did not have any spray,” he said. “We have advised our people that they must make a statement that we have no intention of retribution in our activities.”

Doctors said that he would have to stay in hospital for four or five days. The opposition leader suffered eye and soft tissue injuries.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged Ugandan authorities to stop the excessive use of force against protesters. Navi Pillay said that she was appalled by the ill-treatment of Dr Besigye.