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Alleging her partner was abducted and tortured, Ugandan activist Stella Nyanzi flees to Kenya


Feminist and political activist Stella Nyanzi has fled to Kenya to seek asylum with her three children. Nyanzi, who a year ago was in prison for writing a poem which used an explicit description of the Ugandan President’s birth and his mother’s vagina to criticize his rule, alleges her partner was abducted and tortured after last month’s elections.

“I fled to get my voice back. I fled to get my mind back. I fled to get my freedom back,” Nyanzi told CNN in a phone interview on Thursday, explaining that this was one of several abductions of people close to her which triggered her to flee.

Nyanzi ran for a seat in parliament in the January vote, which was marred by deadly violence in the months leading up to the general election. At least 50 people were killed at demonstrations in November after the detention of President Yoweri Museveni’s main opponent, singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine, according to Human Rights Watch.

Museveni was re-elected for a sixth term after 35 years of rule, amid a nationwide internet shutdown and heavy security presence in the capital, Kampala, that prevented more mass protests on election week. Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, rejected the election as rigged and called on the country to dismiss the results.

Museveni was re-elected for a sixth term after 35 years of rule, amid a nationwide internet shutdown and heavy security presence in the capital, Kampala, that prevented more mass protests on election week. Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, rejected the election as rigged and called on the country to dismiss the results.

Nyanzi didn’t win her seat, and a week after the vote, her partner, David Musiri — a member of Bobi Wine’s National Unity Platform — was abducted from his car along with his brother, she said.

“David was pushed into the boot of a private saloon car and driven off to an unmarked facility where he was tortured during interrogation,” Nyanzi said. “His genitals were squeezed so badly, his body was beaten and bruised, and nobody knew where he was for a couple of days.”

CNN has not been able to independently corroborate what happened to Musiri due to concerns about his safety. The Ugandan government referred a request for comment to the police, who did not respond to CNN’s queries.

Human Rights Watch reported several incidences of violence and human rights violations in connection with the election.

“The abuses included killings by security forces, arrests and beatings of opposition supporters and journalists, disruption of opposition rallies, and a shutdown of the internet,” said the international human rights NGO in a January statement.

Several Ugandan lawmakers have raised the issue of “rampant” kidnappings, criticizing the “total disregard of the arrest procedures by police and other security agencies.”

“The reason why people are saying kidnap is because the mode of arrest is against the constitution. The arrests must follow the law and that is why Ugandans are concerned,” Ugandan Member of Parliament Asuman Basalirwa said.

“I think that the abductions of unarmed civilians, kidnappings of political actors who belong to the opposition in Uganda, their arrests without warrant … was a distant human rights violation until it struck very close to home,” Nyanzi said.

In a statement to parliament, Uganda’s Minister for Internal Affairs, Gen. Jeje Odongo, revealed 44 people had been reported kidnapped and said 31 people remained missing.

Four people who were found have since been arrested for aiding and abetting terrorism, he said, while seven others had been arrested and released on bail, though he did not mention their charges.

“I have tried to give an update on the continuous incidents of alleged kidnap. Investigations are ongoing and I undertake to give progress of these investigations with time,” Odongo said. He added that authorities would “investigate each and every one of the reported incidents.”

He made no specific reference to the alleged abduction of Nyanzi’s partner.

Nyanzi was first imprisoned in 2017 for a month after posting a Facebook poem criticizing Uganda’s first lady, Janet Museveni, for failing to deliver on her promise to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls.

Following this arrest, Nyanzi’s legal team submitted a petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions. Citing a source connected to her case, a report from the UN body said “that eight men in plainclothes, three of whom were armed, forcibly removed Ms. Nyanzi from her car and put her into the back of their vehicle.” The Working Group says it didn’t receive a response from the Ugandan government to the allegations. CNN has reached out to the government for comment.

When Nyanzi fled at the end of January, she said she was worried she might be “abducted” again, or worse.

“I fled so that I can live tomorrow, to keep being a proud Ugandan and keep contributing to the liberation struggle. I fled also to give my children an opportunity to live in safety and security, and to have access to their mother,” she said.

Nyanzi crossed the border into Kenya by bus with Wasswa, one of her 13-year-old twin sons. Her other children Kato, 13, and Baraka, 16, had left with Nyanzi’s sister a week earlier.

They have all been offered asylum-seeker passes while the Kenyan authorities consider their claims for refugee status, Nyanzi said.

An anthropologist by profession, Nyanzi ran headfirst into politics after she was released from prison on appeal last February, announcing her electoral campaign by June.

She had spent nearly 16 months in jail where she said she endured physical abuse by guards and stints in solitary confinement. She was imprisoned for writing a poem that graphically described the birth of the Ugandan President and his mother’s vagina to criticize his “oppression, suppression and repression” of Uganda.

Despite being a controversial figure, Nyanzi gained popularity for her activism and was put forward as the Kampala Woman MP candidate for the Forum for Democratic Change, one of the major opposition parties, and had hopes of winning. “We were very expectant. We had no idea that we were going to score third” said Nyanzi, who described the “disappointment and pain experienced by her campaign team after she lost the vote.

“I’m very grateful that Kenya had open doors and was able to receive me at this time,” Nyanzi told CNN. While the activist and her family wait for their refugee status to come through, she says she is going to be writing, as well as doing something else she is less well-versed in — resting.

“I’ve had the most hectic five years and I think that I deserve a break,” Nyanzi told CNN. “I deserve to recuperate, I deserve to take care of myself mentally, emotionally, physically — strengthen my energy reserves, and then come back to the bigger struggle.

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