UCU alumnus ‘will not be intimidated’ as icon of justice
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2021/03/ucu-alumnus-will-not-be-intimidated-as-icon-of-justice/
(NOTE: 2004 Uganda Christian University graduate and civil rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, was imprisoned in Uganda for eight days, including Christmas 2020. The charges were related to fundraising of the human rights’ nonprofit organization, Chapter Four Uganda, where he serves as executive director. Without access to Opiyo until his release on December 30, this story was written largely with information from sources outside Opiyo. Once released, he posted on his Facebook page his response to his written/spoken support. That response is at the end of this story.)
By Douglas Olum
The mention of the name, Nicholas Opiyo, rings a bell of justice and the struggle for protection and defense of human rights among many Ugandans.
As Diana Muhanguzi puts in her Facebook post, “I [first] met Nicholas Opiyo in the year 2016 when he was representing my father in court for free and he managed to get for him bail.”
In the same vein, Bryan Ksg, a medical doctor writes, “During our internship three years ago, [the] Ministry of Health brought up a draconian policy of bonding Medical Interns into work without any compensation at respective hospitals. Imagine working 24 hours as an intern without food or even rent! Counsel Nicholas Opiyo offered zero cost legal services to medical interns and helped us secure a Court injunction to stop this policy.”
In the words of a renown Ugandan columnist and journalist, Daniel K. Kalinaki, “Few lawyers spend as much time hobnobbing with the police trying to find ‘disappeared’ people, helping folks post bail or just press back against the overreach of executive authority [as Nicholas Opiyo does].”
Nicholas Opiyo, a 37-year-old, bespectacled Uganda Christian University graduate, is described by his colleague, Robert Kirunda, as “tall, dark, gentle, soft spoken and deeply caring. Selfless to a fault, and loyal in every way. Deeply reflective and thoughtful in every task and time. Never to shy away from a fight and yet as carefully strategic and methodical.”
Opiyo is the Executive Director and Lead Attorney at Chapter Four Uganda, a civil rights charity. He is the recipient of German Africa Prize, 2017, UCU Law Society Alumni Human Rights Award, 2018, Voices for Justice Award from Human Rights Watch 2015 and the European Union Parliament Sakharov Fellows Prize in 2016. Until March of 2017, he was a member of the Team of Experts to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Peaceful Assembly and Association. He also is a visiting scholar at the Centre for African Studies, Stanford University, Calif., and the Global Health Program at the University of San Francisco (UCSF), California.
His work has over the years been characterized by a series of wins. But asked what the secret to his success was, he told The Independent Magazine journalist, Joan Akello, in a 2014 interview that, “I do not believe that there is any secret to my work except hard work, persistence and being able to take the walk along sometimes lonely legal roads. [But] I chase causes not a big cheque.”
Recently, Opiyo has represented the leading Uganda opposition politician and presidential candidate, Robert Sentamu Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), the controversial Makerere University academic, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, and many others he believes have been unfairly and illegally arrested and detained. He has been in the forefront for condemning actions of security operatives who torture and abuse Ugandans.
On December 22, 2020, Nicholas Opiyo, alongside three other human rights advocates – Herbert Dakasi, Anthony Odur and Esomu Obure – was abducted by plain-clothes, armed men from a restaurant in Kamwokya, a suburb of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, where they went to have lunch. Until late evening of that day, police said they had no clue about the arrest and did not know the whereabouts of Opiyo and his colleagues. But with mounting pressure, they later revealed that the four were under their custody.
Opiyo was charged on December 24 with money laundering and remanded to Kitalya Prison, while his colleagues were released. Prosecution alleges that, in his capacity as the Director of Chapter Four Uganda, Opiyo, on October 8, received $340,000 through the organisation’s account, “knowing at the time of receipt that the said funds were proceeds of crime.”
Chapter Four Uganda denied the claim. The arrest and detention of Opiyo attracted criticism from diplomatic missions in the country, Civil Society Organisations and the legal fraternity.
Partners for Democracy and Governance, a coalition of 14 diplomatic missions in Uganda, including the US, UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and the EU, among others, expressed concern over the arrest, saying that “Human rights defenders play an important role in every country and should be able to work without fear of arrest or reprisals, wherever they are.”
On Monday December 28, Opiyo re-appeared before a Kampala Magistrate via video conferencing from his detention facility, and he was further remanded until January 11. He, however, attained partial freedom on Wednesday, December 30, when High Court Judge, Jane Okuo Kajuga, who heard his bail application, granted him a Uganda sh15m ($4,104) cash bail.
Prior to his arrest, unknown people, suspected to be government security operatives, broke into Opiyo’s house and took his “laptop, phones, other electronics and several other items,” as his September 9 Twitter account states. Similar break-ins have been reported in various civil society offices in the recent years.
Chapter Four Uganda, posted on their Facebook Page, shortly after the arrest that at the time, that Opiyo was gathering evidence of the killing of more than 50 Ugandans in Kampala during a demonstration over the arrest of presidential hopeful, Robert Kyagulanyi around Mid-November.
As Daniel Kalinaki sums it up, “Officials whose capacity has been “built” under Western donor funding to the “Justice, Law and Order sector” go around hunting for people receiving money from abroad. The government is happy to beg and borrow… but will spear any citizen it finds in bed with the aforementioned partners…”
The first Facebook post from Nicholas Opiyo since his release expresses his appreciation for messages of support. In part, the post states: “I am teary reading all of your messages… Thank you so much. We will fight these baseless and malicious charges. One thing is clear; we will not be intimidated. I will continue to do my work and defend the rights of the vulnerable and marginalized in our society… I can only repay your faith and belief by fighting on and continuing the work we have been doing over the years. I am undaunted by this minor inconvenience, rather inspired by it.”
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