Where is the global outrage at Uganda’s abuse of Stella Nyanzi? #FreeStellaNyanzi


On Friday, April 7, Ugandan queer and women’s rights feminist activist and founder of the Pads4girls campaign Stella Nyanzi was arrested for a Facebook post in which she referred to Uganda’s President Yoweri Muzeveni as a “pair of buttocks.” For that, Stella Nyanzi was charged with cyber harassment and infringing on the President’s freedom of speech and expression. Formally charged on April 10, Stella Nyanzi was promptly transported to Luzira Maximum Security Prison, where she awaits her trial, April 25. Stella Nyanzi’s Facebook post was part of an ongoing campaign to get the President and his Minister of Education, Janet Museveni, also the First Lady, to live up to their election campaign promises to create real budget lines for sanitary napkins for school girls. To no one’s surprise, once the election season was over, the promises disappeared into a welter of budgetary fog. The surprise was Stella Nyanzi, who decided that this was unacceptable and took up the gauntlet. Since being dumped in prison, the government has tried to force Stella Nyanzi to undergo psychiatric examinations, which she has resisted. There was no mad woman in the attic in Amherst, and there is no mad woman in that prison cell in Luzira, but there is a woman in Luzira who is righteously furious. As Ugandans have noted, Stella Nyanzi’s treatment is an abuse of everybody’s freedom and should be worrying everyone … and not only in Uganda, but does it? Where is the global outrage at Uganda’s abuse Stella Nyanzi? Somewhere just below the global outrage at the lack of concern for school going girls.

Since Stella Nyanzi’s arrest, and for weeks before, the Ugandan press has been awash with news reports, analyses, commentaries and general commentary. Beyond Uganda, however, the formal press has been fairly quiet. Usual suspects, such as Amnesty, have mobilized, and supporters have organized an on-line #FreeStellaNyanzi campaign. But the news media itself has treated the whole affair as one-off. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the BBC, the Mail & Guardian have each, respectively, run one original article on the situation, relying on Reuters and AP for anything else. Al Jazeera has run three, mostly made up of other sources but also their own. Just today, The East African finally caught up with Stella Nyanzi.

While there is a personal drama taking place among Stella Nyanzi and Uganda’s First Family, the imprisonment and subsequent attempt at a psychiatric analysis should worry everyone. In Uganda, supporters, and even detractors, understand that the arrest and imprisonment of Stella Nyanzi threatens to criminalize speech, expression and thought. They understand that as a violation of the 1995 Constitution. The attempt to force a psychiatric examination on Stella Nyanzi was `justified’ by the Mental Treatment Act, “inherited from … colonial masters at a time where persons with mental disabilities were looked at by the law as of no value, with no place in the community. They were seen as ‘objects’ whose only place was a mental asylum where they would be subjected to perpetual suffering. Persons with mental disabilities were, at all times, considered dangerous to themselves and the community.” The application of the Mental Treatment Act against Stella Nyanzi is worrisome because it is an abuse of Stella Nyanzi’s rights and person, and, equally, because it is an attempt to return Uganda to colonial days. By applying the Mental Treatment Act to control and suppress Stella Nyanzi, the State hopes to make Uganda great again. From Uganda to the United States, the line is short and direct.

The general global news media quiet concerning Stella Nyanzi is itself disquieting. The politics of enforced silence takes many forms in many places. We should hear more from the news media concerning Stella Nyanzi, as well as the conditions of girls going to school, of women in prison, of free speech and expression, and of the right for women to be mad. What happens to Stella Nyanzi happens to all of us. For some, “Stella Nyanzi is a hero to hundreds and thousands of little girls and women who know where she is coming from, in terms of defending women’s rights to sanitary towels.” While Stella Nyanzi is both hero and champion, her circumstances are altogether ordinary, and not just in Uganda. Don’t wait until April 25 to see what happens, because it’s already happening. #FreeStellaNyanzi

 

(Photo Credit: Mail & Guardian / Reuters / James Akena)

Amid the Stench of Human Feces, Ugandan Prisoners Earn Diplomas and Assist Peers

Susan Kigula and Pascal Nakuru graduate

With 42,000 prisoners and an official capacity of 16,000, Ugandan prisons are the most congested in East Africa and the 9th most overcrowded in the world, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. These prisons are not only severely over-capacitated, but also have poor infrastructure and sanitation. Inmates are often denied a mattress or bedding, running water, electricity, adequate meals, and health care. As of last week, 40 prisons in Uganda still use the “bucket system,” which requires inmates to relieve themselves in a bucket during the night. The combination of stagnant urine and fecal matter in an overcrowded cell causes unhygienic conditions and a breeding ground for disease.

Many blame the country’s inefficient criminal justice system that fails to process cases in a timely manner, causing a severe backlog of cases. According to Human Rights Watch, “It’s clear that overcrowding and pretrial detention are interlinked.” In Uganda, 55% of inmates are on remand, meaning they are arrested and detained without having a trial. Many have never been convicted of an offense or sentenced to serve prison time. Some wait years or even decades in custody for their cases to be heard in court.

Uganda’s former Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki stated, “There is no doubt that [the case backlog] violates the right to a fair and timely trial, especially for the poor and marginalized, who spend their hard-earned resources [on legal support] only to be told that their cases cannot be heard.” More than 90% of prisoners have no legal representation and must defend themselves, despite the fact that the Ugandan constitution guarantees every citizen the right to a state attorney.

Yet, Susan Kigula and two other inmates at Luzira Maximum security prison in Kampala are now qualified to help their fellow prisoners navigate the Ugandan legal system. The three inmates were the first ever in the country to earn a Diploma in Common Law from the University of London while incarcerated, studying through a correspondence course supported by the African Prisons Project. Kigula intends to use her degree to provide legal counseling and assistance to her peers.

A survey of Ugandans found that only 0.3% were aware that they had the right to a fair and speedy trial. While Kigula and her fellow graduates now possess the knowledge to raise awareness about basic human rights in prison, more needs to be done. Today, there are 23,000 people held in pre-trial detention in Uganda’s prisons. They cannot demand a timely trial or a state attorney if they do not know that they deserve one.

 

(Photo Credit: KonnectAfrica)

 

Ingrid Turinawe’s Long Walk to Work … and Democracy

The choir at Luzira women’s prison

Last week, Ingrid Turinawe, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Women’s League, in Uganda, was sent to the infamous Luzira Prison.

Everywhere one looks, there are “infamous” prisons. For the United States, for example, Guantánamo, with its regime of torture and its regimen of violence, is but the tip of a national iceberg. Every country has at least one. In Uganda, it’s Luzira Prison.

Six years ago, two-thirds of Uganda’s then18,000 prisoners were awaiting trial. Some had been caged for years, for no reason other than not being able to post bond… or because, in the global security climate, they have been deemed `terrorists’, and so … stay in prison for years, without every being charged.

Of the 18,000, prisoners, 5,000 were in Luzira, built in the 1950’s, designed for a capacity of … 500. That’s ten people for every one person’s space. For years. And those were the good times. Last year, the prison system reported over 30,000 prisoners, of whom a little over 1,000 were women. In March 2010, Luzira Upper was at 366 percent of approved capacity; Luzira Women’s at 357 percent. The situation is only expected to worsen over the next decade.

What does overcrowding mean? Inadequate food, inadequate water, inadequate clothes, blankets, mattresses. Most prisoners sleep on the bare floor. The only prison in the entire system that has blankets is Luzira Women’s Prison. The result? Reports estimate that 10% of inmates die in prison, primarily due to malnutrition and AIDs, but really due to lack of this, inadequate that, and none of essential those.

Along with overcrowding, use of isolation cells as “persuasion” is fairly common, in both Luzira Upper and Luzira Women’s Prisons. For pregnant women prisoners, prenatal care is horrible and postnatal care is worse. For prisoners living with mental or psychosocial disabilities, their options are to languish or perish while the State dithers. Many of these prisoners are in Luzira. The same holds for many juveniles held in Luzira adult facilities and awaiting some sort of decision. The same holds for those on Luzira’s death row, where perhaps as many as 25% are innocent, but hey. For sex workers the situation is, at best, dire. For those accused of “homosexuality” … worse.

And of course the open secret of Luzira is the torture of political prisoners, covered by the fog of anti-terrorism. One woman was held incommunicado for six months, during which she was beaten senseless. Then she was taken to Luzira, for a month, before being released on bail. Her crime? Being married to a person of interest. Another woman was abducted by rebels, as a girl. When she was captured, by the army, she was sent, finally, to Luzira, where she applied for amnesty. After seven months, she was released, without amnesty, without a trial and with charges dropped. Nevertheless, she is required to report to the equivalent of a parole officer once a month … in perpetuity.

In Uganda, if one is charged, or suspected, of “treason or terrorism”, Luzira is in the cards.

So, Ingrid Turinawe was sent to Luzira. Why? She has been charged with treason. Because she participated in and led the “walk to work” protests and campaign, now in its second phase. Because she said something’s rotten in the state of Uganda. Because she proposed that democracy, now, is both required and possible … now. Of course, there’s barely a mention of Turinawe, or of the Walk to Work campaign, in the western press, but what else is new? As you read of the Occupy movements, the Indignados, the Uncut movements, the ongoing Arab Spring and Chile Autumn, and all the other manifestations, and as you read of the police “over-reaction”, which is always merely following orders, remember the Ugandans who, since last year, have been Walking to Work and think of Ingrid Turinawe, in Luzira Prison… for the treason of dreaming democracy.

 

(This post originally appeared, in slightly different form and under different title, here: http://africasacountry.com/2011/10/31/ugandas-guantanamo/)

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Clifford Chance)