Ugandan police arrest 56 for holding illegal meetings

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Ugandan police have arrested 56 people for holding illegal assemblies, the police said on Thursday, but an opposition official accused them of cracking down on opponents of a plan by the president to extend his rule.

The government said last week it wants to change the constitution to remove the age limit for presidential candidates, potentially enabling the 72-year-old Museveni to stay in office beyond 2021.

Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, is currently ineligible to stand in the polls due in four years because the constitution bars candidates over 75 years of age.

Police said the opposition activists were arrested as they held meetings in the suburbs north of the capital Kampala for “holding unlawful assemblies,” which violates a public order management law.

Public opposition has been growing since local media reported on plans by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party to introduce a bill seeking to remove the age cap from the constitution.

There have been isolated protests, while posters denouncing the move have been plastered on walls and electricity poles around Kampala.

Ingrid Turinawe, an official in Forum for Democratic Change, Uganda’s largest opposition party, said that the activists were arrested as they met to canvass for support for a candidate in a contest for the party’s presidency and that she feared for their safety.

“They (police) suspected the meetings were for opposing the age limit matter, which is why they stormed them,” she said.

The activists were being detained at a prison in eastern Uganda, police said, where critics have previously accused security personnel of torturing suspects.

“We fear our people are being tortured right now,” Turinawe said, adding that police had denied all those detained access to lawyers or contact with relatives.

Museveni’s critics have long accused him of a range of rights violations and also say vital public services are dysfunctional due to years of corruption and mismanagement.

Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Hugh Lawson