Ugandan police said Monday that authorities have arrested more than 100 people suspected of involvement in a street protest last week that killed a policeman. Opposition politicians accused the president of behaving like former Ugandan dictators.
Police and plainclothes security personnel on Saturday cordoned off a street in the Ugandan capital and then raided a shopping center for potential suspects. A policeman was hit and killed by a rock as opposition politicians and their supporters marched in Kampala last week, police said.
The case has proved highly divisive, with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni saying those responsible for the killing would "pay dearly." Some in the opposition don't believe the official version of the death, and say the policeman was instead killed by a stray bullet from a colleague's gun.
Opposition politicians say the arrests, in which heavily armed men invaded shops and dragged suspects to trucks as sirens wailed, are reminiscent of past dictatorships. They say the arrests recall the tactics preferred by the regimes of former presidents Idi Amin and Milton Obote, whose soldiers were notorious for conducting ambitious swoops that inspired fear and often left a trail of rape and plunder.
"As activists for change, we are happy that we have unmasked a dictator who was masquerading as a democrat," said Ingrid Turinawe, an opposition politician who has been arrested several times for participating in the opposition's "Walk to Work" protests. "People are now even being picked up from their homes."
Police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba said the arrested suspects had been screened and some released. She did not reveal the charges those still in custody were likely to face. She said less than 20 were still in detention.
Politicians who have been staging demonstrations say the mass arrests are an attempt by the authorities to silence growing opposition among urban residents disenchanted by rising poverty and the high cost of living. Opposition politicians have since last year been organizing popular "Walk to"Work" demonstrations, so called because those who participate cannot afford public transportation.
The leader of the walking protests, Kizza Besigye, was restricted to his home and place of work after last week's police death.
Police officials say the demonstrations disrupt business in the city and often use tear gas to break them up. They say the mass arrests are necessary to rid Kampala of criminal elements they describe as hooligans.
"A mosque can be surrounded by troops if terrorists are suspected to be hiding inside," said Tamale Mirundi, the spokesman for Museveni, who has led Uganda since 1986 but now faces growing opposition within and outside his party. "Police can raid a church if they suspect a crime is being committed there. It's normal practice."
Some analysts suspect the mass arrests are intended to cripple the opposition's support ahead of an international conference for parliamentarians next week. Some politicians have threatened to stage massive demonstrations before delegates to an assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to be held in Kampala from March 31 to April 5.
"The mass arrests are just to break the back of rebellion, to prove that the state is more powerful," said Fred Guweddeko, a research fellow at the Makerere University Institute of Social Research in Kampala. "The second purpose is for intelligence to recruit their own people among the pool of suspects."