KAMPALA (Reuters) – Ugandan opposition leader Kizza Besigye was dragged from his car at gunpoint by police on Thursday and thrown into a pickup truck during a fifth round of protests against high food and fuel prices.
Besigye later appeared in court, slumped forward in his chair, his ear bandaged and eyes covered with tissues. Besigye was repeatedly sprayed with pepper gas by plainclothes police as they tried to remove the opposition leader from his car.
Besigye’s lawyer David Mpanga said he was unable to make a plea because he could neither open his eyes nor talk. The judge concluded he was not in good health, adjourned the case until May 2 without reading out charges, and released him on bail.
This is the fourth time in three weeks that Besigye, runner-up to veteran President Yoweri Museveni in a disputed February election, has been detained by police over the protests that have killed at least five.
The campaign, dubbed “walk to work,” calls on Ugandans to leave their cars at home and walk to work to highlight the high price of fuel and food.
Museveni, in power since 1986, blames drought for high food costs and soaring oil prices for surging local fuel costs, and has warned Besigye that his protests will not be tolerated.
“I want to see what level of irrationality they have reached. They said walking is a protest. Is driving now also a protest?” Besigye said from his car before he was arrested.
“We are not asking for a regime change … People of Uganda are expressing discontent with conditions in Uganda. Thing is, I am not setting out to be a martyr, I’m simply asserting my citizen’s rights,” he said.
Besigye, who has been defeated by Museveni in three elections, was helped to his car from the court by opposition officials as supporters sang: “We shall overcome.”
“The most worrisome thing is his eyes. They are acutely inflamed and it is difficult to assess them,” Besigye’s sister Olive Kobsingye, who is a doctor, told reporters.
DRAGGED FROM CAR
Besigye had initially tried to walk to work again in protest at rising living costs, but was stopped by police at his gate. He decided to drive, tailed by police and supporters, before security forces blocked his car at a roundabout.
After a long standoff, plainclothes police smashed his car window with a hammer but Besigye refused to leave. His bodyguards were dragged from the vehicle and severely beaten.
A policeman smashed another window with a pistol and pointed the gun at the opposition leader while a second man drenched Besigye with pepper spray. He was eventually hauled out, dragged along the road and tossed into a nearby pickup truck.
“He was driving, but he eventually attracted a crowd which he couldn’t control and we tried to give him directions to take another route but he defied these directives. We tried to negotiate with him but he didn’t budge,” said Nabakoba.
“Police used reasonable force but investigations are underway on any allegations of violence,” she said.
After his arrest, police dispersed hundreds of Besigye supporters gathered at the roundabout, firing teargas and bullets, Reuters witnesses said.
Police said there were also protests in Masaka, a town about 120 km (75 miles) from the capital. Local police spokesman Noah Serujonji said protesters started burning tires and blocking roads but they were eventually dispersed.
Besigye was bailed from prison on Wednesday after being charged last Thursday with inciting public protests, and immediately vowed to carry on with the campaign of twice-weekly “walk to work” demonstrations.
He has been arrested during four of the five protests so far. The only protest in which Besigye was not detained was when he was taken to hospital for treatment on a hand he says was hit by a rubber bullet.
“This is our president: Besigye. We call him ‘Big’. ‘Big is big’, we say. That is why they attack him. They attack him because they fear him. But he comes back again and again to face this government,” said supporter Edward Semuwemba.
(Additional reporting by Justin Dralaze; Editing by David Clarke/Maria Golovnina)