In Uganda, criticizing the president may not just be illegal. It could also be used as proof of insanity.
The government of President Yoweri Museveni, still in power 31 years after setting out as a great hope for African democracy, routinely intimidates dissidents and journalists. Live broadcasts of demonstrations are banned, and social media is blocked during elections that are already deeply flawed. And the longer Mr. Museveni clings to power, the tighter his grip on dissent appears to be.
Uganda’s top prosecutor sought this week to crack down further on dissent, trying to use a colonial-era law, once used by the British to quash African resistance, to commit a prominent critic of the president to a mental institution.
It was only the second time in recent memory that the law, the Mental Treatment Act of 1938, was invoked in a case over free speech, according to lawyers. The first involved a student who was forcibly taken several times to a psychiatric hospital after lampooning the president on social media.
This time, Stella Nyanzi, who until recently was a research fellow at Makerere University in Kampala, the capital, was charged on Monday with “cyberharassment” and “offensive communication” after a series of Facebook posts this year, particularly one in which she described Mr. Museveni as a “pair of buttocks.”
In addition to the charges, State Attorney Jonathan Muwaganya, a lawyer educated in the United States, submitted an application to commit Ms. Nyanzi to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks so that doctors could “determine” her mental health.
“Calling a renowned researcher insane for exercising a legitimate right of protest and free speech is in itself insane,” Ms. Nyanzi’s lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, said in a telephone interview.
Ms. Nyanzi’s case has produced widespread anger in the country, which prides itself on its vibrant civil society but is increasingly frustrated with Mr. Museveni’s despotic tendencies — an about-face from his earlier years when he restored political stability after the horrors of Idi Amin and promised not to overstay his time in power.
A prominent journalist who expressed support for Ms. Nyanzi on social media was abducted last week by unidentified assailants, taken to a secret location and interrogated for hours.
Last year, an army general who complained about Mr. Museveni’s length in office was promptly jailed. Several people were arrested in 2015 for posting critical comments on Facebook and uploading photos depicting the president as dead.
Ms. Nyanzi’s Facebook posts contain profanity-laced vitriol about the president and his wife (whom Ms. Nyanzi describes as having a “tiny brain” the size of a sexual organ), as well as academic studies of “Radical Rudeness” and the “Necessity of Political Vulgarity” — political tactics Ugandans once used to resist British imperialism. “Know our rich history before you think I am the first fighter with words,” Ms. Nyanzi wrote in one post.
But last week, the authorities seemed to have had enough.
Security forces detained Ms. Nyanzi on Friday as she left a Rotary Club event in Kampala, where she had given a talk on providing schoolgirls with sanitary pads, a subject over which she has publicly argued with Mr. Museveni’s wife, Janet, who is the education minister.
Ms. Nyanzi was held for 18 hours and beaten, said Mr. Opiyo, her lawyer. When he was finally allowed to see her, he said, “her clothes had been torn, and though she was menstruating, she was not given napkins.”
“She was left to bleed,” he added.
Mr. Muwaganya, the state attorney who lodged the application to commit Ms. Nyanzi to a mental hospital, said, according to local reports, “Dr. Stella Nyanzi has a direct impact on the moral decadence of this country.” He said she had a history of psychiatric problems and had been a patient at Butabika Hospital, a mental health facility.
Ms. Nyanzi, 43, was defiant in court. “How many times has Museveni offended Ugandans?” she said in the packed courtroom. “I am ready to take on the mantle of insanity if the regime is going to be told for the first time about how it has offended Ugandans. Yes, your honor, I have written a lot about those who rule us, nepotism. However, I am not guilty of offensive communication.”
Her case was taken up on social media, with #FreeStellaNyanzi trending on Twitter on Tuesday. Activists posted Twitter messages about the conditions under which she had been held at Luzira prison. Shawn Mubiru, an associate at the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies in Kampala, posted that two male psychiatrists had been seen at the prison, and quoted Ms. Nyanzi as saying she was being pushed up against the wall “to make her snap.”
Ms. Nyanzi was charged with writing posts that “disturbed the peace, quiet or the right of his privacy of his excellency the president of Uganda Yoweri Kaguta Museveni with no purpose of legitimate communication.” The Daily Monitor, a Ugandan newspaper, called Ms. Nyanzi “vulgar” for making her political criticisms too personal.
Amnesty International, the human rights organization, released a statement dismissing the case against her as politically motivated. “Arresting Nyanzi simply for criticizing the president and his wife serves no legitimate purpose,” the statement read. “It should stop wasting resources on pointless and politically motivated prosecutions.”