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Uganda human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo granted bail

Uganda police disperse crowds in Kayunga town as they gather to welcome Ugandan musician-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi   -  
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SUMY SADURNI/AFP or licensors -

Uganda

A court in Uganda on Wednesday granted bail to the country's highest-profile human rights lawyer, whose detention ahead of a tense election next month was widely seen as politically motivated.

Nicholas Opiyo, an internationally-recognised human rights campaigner and outspoken government critic, was arrested last week on charges of money laundering and detained in prison, drawing condemnation from around the globe and strident calls for his immediate release.

Justice Jane Okuo Kajuga rejected the case made by state prosecutors for keeping Opiyo, 40, behind bars, instead granting him bail on condition his sureties paid the equivalent of a $4,100 ($3,340 euros) bond.

"We're glad that our client has been granted bail," Opiyo's lawyer David Mpanga told journalists outside the court.

"Nicholas is eminently qualified to be released on bail, there is no danger that he'll abscond, there is no danger that he'll interfere with the investigation, indeed, he'll be in court whenever the court needs him."

The case has been closely watched as authorities have stepped up a crackdown ahead of a January 14 vote in which President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 35 years, is seeking a sixth term in office.

Diplomats from the US embassy in Kampala and several European missions were present in court for the bail hearing, which Opiyo attended via video link from a prison outside Kampala where he's been held since his arrest on December 22.

"Civil society actors and human rights defenders play a vital role in educating the citizenry and must be allowed to carry out their work free from harassment," US ambassador Natalie Brown, posted on Twitter in welcoming Opiyo's release on bail.

"There will be consequences for those who undermine democracy."

- Presidential candidate 'restrained' -

The leadup to next month's vote has been marred by increasing violence against Museveni's rivals -- most notably his main challenger Bobi Wine, a young musician-turned-MP -- and bloody attacks on journalists trying to cover opposition campaign rallies.

In the worst instance, security forces gunned down dozens of people who turned out to protest Wine's arrest in November. The official death toll from the two days of violence was 54, but diplomatic and security sources estimate the true figure is closer to 80.

On Wednesday, Wine's campaign team said the presidential aspirant and his entire support crew had again been arrested while on the hustings near Lake Victoria.

Police denied the opposition leader had been arrested, saying Wine was "restrained" and returned to his home in Kampala for holding large rallies in defiance of campaign rules around coronavirus.

On Tuesday, 11 top human rights experts at the United Nations issued a joint statement expressing grave concern at the pre-election violence and "the increasing crackdown on peaceful protesters, political and civil society leaders and human rights defenders".

"The prosecution of Nicholas Opiyo and other lawyers, as well as the judicial harassment of those who express dissent, appear to be strictly related to the electoral context, and fictitious charges being used to justify them," the statement read.

Police allege that Opiyo received a grant of $340,000 (277,000 euros) through the "proceeds of crime" to fund Chapter Four Uganda, a prominent legal organisation that specialises in defending civil society groups.

He was involved in defending four non-government organisations whose assets were frozen by a government regulator on December 12 on charges of financing terrorism.

Chapter Four has dismissed the charges against Opiyo as "baseless".

Ahead of Wednesday's bail hearing, the parliament's vice president, Heidi Hautala, said Opiyo had been arrested on "malicious and fabricated grounds" and called for his immediate release.

Opiyo is expected to reappear in court on January 11.

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