By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Ugandan lawmakers on Tuesday passed a controversial public order law that drew sharp criticism from the opposition and human rights campaigners who said it was intended to silence dissent.
Critics contend the law is designed to keep a lid on what they say is mounting frustration at veteran President Yoweri Museveni who has faced intermittent anti-government street protests over the high cost of living, corruption and inadequate public services.
"This bill is a devastating blow for freedom of expression and assembly in Uganda," said Maria Burnet, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"With this law in force, any spontaneous peaceful demonstration of more than three people will be a criminal act."
The government, which has arrested opposition leader Kizza Besigye on numerous occasions alleging he was seeking to incite trouble at rallies, says the law will prevent unrest.
Helen Kawesa, a spokeswoman for the parliament, confirmed the bill's successful passage through the chamber.
Under the law, anyone planning to hold a political rally or demonstration will be required to give a notice to the police. The authorities will have wide-ranging powers to stop such meetings if they have "reasonable grounds" to do so.
In May, the authorities closed down two radio stations and the east African country's leading daily newspaper, Daily Monitor, for reports regarding the aging Museveni's succession. The ban was lifted when they accepted a range of restrictions, the government said at the time.
House opposition Chief Whip, Winifred Kiiza, alleged ruling party legislators had been intimidated into supporting the bill.
"It's an insane law," Kiiza said.
Amnesty International said the "insidious" law would stifle political debate in a country where "publicly criticizing the government is already fraught with risk".
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Richard Lough and Michael Roddy)