Ugandan pop star and presidential candidate Bobi Wine, whose arrest this week triggered protests that led to at least 37 deaths, was released on bail on Friday after being charged with holding rallies likely to spread the coronavirus.
The violence comes as campaigns kick off ahead of January elections in the oil-rich East African nation, whose ageing leader Yoweri Musaveni is a staunch Western ally but faces accusations of corruption and nepotism at home, which he denies.
Opposition leader Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was arrested on Wednesday while campaigning in eastern Uganda for allegedly holding mass rallies in violation of restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Uganda is due to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Jan. 14, with Wine emerging as a serious threat to Museveni, 76, who aims to extend his 34-year rule.
Violence snowballed as authorities deployed the military across the capital Kampala and surrounding areas to help police forces disperse protesters they accuse of rioting and looting. Police said they used live bullets, tear gas and water cannon, and arrested nearly 600 people.
Police pathologist Moses Byaruhanga told Reuters on Friday the death toll had jumped to 37.
Witnesses said they saw university and high school students gunned down in the streets.
Journalist Jocylynne Nakibuule, who works at local station Spark TV, said she had helped a 15-year-old boy shot in the back on Thursday.
“I am a mother. When I saw the boy, my motherly instincts kicked in. I forgot all about the riots,” Nakibuule said, adding that she took him to hospital on a motorbike taxi.
“He was bleeding constantly,” Nakibuule said, sobbing. “I kept calling his name, Amos, Amos, please fight to save the pain of your mother.”
The boy’s mother told her that soldiers had shot at them as they came out of a shop, she said.
Nakibuule went back to covering the protests. On Friday morning, the hospital told her the boy had died.
Fred Mpanga said his 21-year-old nephew, Yusuf Kimuli, was also killed after going to buy milk.
“Gunmen who were not in uniform and were in a private car moving around shooting people, they shot him in the back,” Mpanga said.
Kimuli lay in the street for more than an hour bleeding to death because people were afraid to help him, Mpanga said, citing accounts from witnesses who spoke to the family.
“All the light has been snuffed out of my life.”
It remains unclear who was responsible for the bloodshed. During the protests, a witness told Reuters that men in civilian clothes were walking around carrying assault rifles.
Multiple opposition parties have previously accused the government of using non-uniformed security personnel to quell riots. The government has denied those accusations.
Police spokesman Fred Enanga blamed the protesters, saying Wine’s supporters targeted bystanders who do not support their National Unity Platform (NUP) party.
“What we have seen in the last few days, that is violence, vandalism, looting, intimidation and threats, are crimes that were being committed (against) people who are not pro-NUP,” he said. “This is not something that we can tolerate.”
NUP spokesman Joel Senyonyi told Reuters the party condemned the looting and said it had urged supporters to protest peacefully.
In a televised court appearance on Friday, Wine blamed the president for the shootings: “It is Museveni who is supposed to be in this dock for killing innocent citizens.”
Wine is popular among Ugandan youth, who often play songs in which he denounces government corruption.
Wine has said that being “born hustling and born to hustling parents, raised in the ghettos” meant he could understand the struggles of impoverished Ugandans. He has repeatedly urged Museveni to retire.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said authorities were “weaponizing” COVID-19 to suppress opposition ahead of the elections.
“This is just the beginning of the campaign season,” said Oryem Nyeko, the group’s Africa researcher. “It seems to be a sign of things to come.”