Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu is walking with a limp. His back is bruised, and he believes his left kidney is badly damaged. His eyes are swollen, and some of his skin has started to peel, leaving him with painful blisters.
Popularly known as Bobi Wine, he is a Ugandan pop star who won a seat in parliament last year. He has since emerged as a major political headache for President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986. Wine's songs criticize the government, and for many in Uganda’s overwhelmingly young population, this charismatic singer is the one to fight the corruption plaguing the country.
He has even emerged as a threat to Museveni, 74, who after more than 30 years in power is still seeking ways to stay on even longer.
Last month, when a scuffle broke out after Museveni claimed that protesters stoned his convoy in a northern town, Wine's driver was shot dead in the passenger seat of his car. Security forces then arrested Wine and accused him of instigating violence.
He was later charged with treason. He is out on bail and is in the United States to seek medical treatment for injuries he says he sustained at the hands of the Ugandan military while in custody in August.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday evening, Wine, 36, said he was beaten during his arrest and in the days that followed. “No part of my body was spared,” he said.
“They beat me with an iron bar, they tied both my hands and legs with handcuffs, they squeezed my testicles, they squeezed my private parts, they injected me with things I don’t know,” he said. “I cannot even walk without the help of crutches.”
He is waiting for test results from American doctors before he announces a diagnosis.
Wine was initially blocked from flying to the United States. He said security forces intervened at the airport last week, dragging him “brutally into a police ambulance."
He said he was beaten “in front of a medical doctor, and I was driven at a breakneck speed to a government hospital.” Wine was then locked in a room before he was eventually cleared to fly, he said, at which point he left for Boston, where he sought medical assistance before traveling to Washington. He already had a U.S. visa at the time of his departure from Uganda, and in an email, a State Department spokesperson said “the United States had no role in his decision to travel to the United States."
Gen. Elly Tumwine, Uganda's security minister, told The Post in a phone call Wednesday that Wine and others “fought with the ones who arrested them, and that’s what caused their ailments.” Tumwine said he thinks Ugandan soldiers prevented the situation from escalating further and that “the medical examination found there wasn’t much.”
“Torture is if someone is tortured after arrest. But in the process of arrest, if you resist arrest, you know what we do to people,” Tumwine said. “The matter is being investigated, and we shall find out what happened, and that is a matter for the court.”
Wine insisted that “it is characteristic of Ugandan security forces to torture Ugandans and deny or outrightly lie about it.”
“Whoever had given them orders, the orders were clear: to brutalize me,” he said. “Many times I’m convinced that the orders were to kill me.”
On Thursday, Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo P'Odel released a statement saying Wine's lawyers are “employing diversionary tactics in raising the tantalizing, although unproven, allegations of torture.” He also said that in a medical exam conducted by doctors in the country, “no condition was found warranting further medical referral either here or abroad.”
Wine’s account of alleged torture in Uganda, a key U.S. partner in East Africa that receives more than $970 million in U.S. development and security assistance per year, sheds further light on concerns from human rights groups that the Ugandan government is repressing opposition politicians in an effort to maintain its hold on power.
Last year, parliament passed a law that eliminated the presidential age limit, which means Museveni, who turned 74 last month, could run in the next presidential election. This summer, the government implemented a controversial tax on social media, which critics say is part of a larger effort to stymie dissent against Museveni’s government. Human Rights Watch said in a statement after Wine’s arrest that his “mistreatment suggests that it is no more than vicious retaliation against a popular opposition leader.”
At least one person has been killed in protests that broke out after his arrest.
The U.S. Embassy in Kampala released a statement last month saying that the embassy is “disturbed by reports of brutal treatment of Members of Parliament, journalists, and others at the hands of security forces.” Wine is scheduled to meet with officials at the State Department and on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Wine grew up in a Kampala slum, earning him the nickname of “Ghetto President” among his supporters, who view the young, energized musician as an alternative to Museveni. Wine's rising popularity has been fueled by a social movement he calls “People Power,” and his songs are critical of the government. In the lyrics to one of his most popular songs “Freedom,” Wine says: “What is the purpose of the constitution, when the government disrespects the constitution? Where is my freedom of expression, when you charge me because of my expression?”
Nicholas Opiyo, one of Wine's lawyers, who heads Chapter Four Uganda, a civil liberties group, told The Post that he thinks “the reason Bobi was tortured was that for a very long time no one has presented such a challenge to Museveni.”
“His beatings are a rude awakening to the political reality in a pseudo-democratic state like Uganda,” Opiyo said. “When I saw Bobi for the first time in the military barracks, I shed a tear. I couldn’t speak because he was so deformed and so swollen that the army didn’t even want people to see him in that state.”
Wine is one of more than 30 people, including other politicians, who were arrested in recent weeks. Opiyo said one of Wine’s colleagues, lawmaker Francis Zaake, was also severely beaten and is now in an intensive-care unit in India after he, too, was cleared for travel for medical purposes.
Opiyo also said treason charges are typically brought to court not because the prosecutor thinks they can win, but because it causes “grave inconvenience” to the accused. “The case is very weak,” he said, calling it “politically motivated.”
Wine insists that he will return to Uganda in time for his next court date, and said he has no plans to apply for asylum in the United States or anywhere else.
“For now the priority is to stay alive,” he said. “I don’t know what’s in my blood; I want to find out. I don’t know if I’ll be able to walk on my own; I want to find out.”