By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda's Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed a petition seeking nullification of President Yoweri Museveni's disputed re-election last month, clearing the way for the 71-year-old veteran leader to extend his three-decade rule.
The ruling had been widely expected by political observers and the opposition in a country where the judiciary is frequently accused of bias toward the incumbent.
Museveni won another five-year term in the Feb. 18 presidential election with 60 percent of the vote, but all his main opponents rejected the results, alleging widespread rigging and intimidation by security forces.
Veteran opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who came second in the election with 35 percent, has been kept under virtual house arrest since polling day.
On March 1 Amama Mbabazi, who came a distant third with less than 2 percent of the vote, appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the result of the poll.
He cited delays in delivering ballot materials, improper supervision of voting, bribery and interference by security forces which he said had tainted the outcome.
In a judgment by nine justices, the head of the Supreme Court, Bart Katureebe, said they had found valid evidence of several malpractices including security interference with Mbabazi's campaigns and late delivery of polling materials, but declined to nullify the result.
"We find that there was non-compliance with the principles of free and fair elections," he said.
"But we are not satisfied that non-compliance affected the result in a substantial manner... This petition is dismissed."
Under Uganda's electoral law someone who alleges malpractices and seeks nullification of the result of a presidential election must prove that the irregularities affected the result in a "substantial manner".
Two similar petitions by Besigye in 2001 and 2006 seeking cancellation of Museveni's re-election were dismissed on the same grounds, sparking heavy criticism.
Some Western governments which have lauded Museveni in the past for helping in the fight against Islamist militants in Somalia have lately criticized him for clamping down on critics and harassing the opposition.
Ugandan political analyst Nicholas Ssengoba told Reuters Museveni's court victory reflected the difficulties the opposition had in gathering evidence.
Soon after the petition was filed, thieves broke into two offices of Mbabazi's lawyers and stole some of the evidence. Mbabazi said the theft was probably orchestrated by the police, an allegation the government denied.
"There were so many handicaps placed on Mbabazi, they couldn't do much," Ssengoba said.
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Gareth Jones)