Kampala – Uganda’s Constitutional Court on Friday heard a challenge to a contentious law that rights activists say gives the government unprecedented powers to regulate civil society and its membership.
The petitioners say it subjects non-governmental organisations “to such extensive government control and interference” that it could breach rights to free expression and association guaranteed under Uganda’s constitution.
The challenge was brought by Chapter Four Uganda and the Center for Constitutional Governance, which claimed provisions in the legislation allowed authorities to shut down an organisation for “overly broad and vague” reasons.
This had already had a stifling effect on criticism and free speech by imposing “restrictive and cumbersome administrative procedures” and criminal sanctions on civil society, said Anthony Masake, executive director at Chapter Four Uganda.
🚨Our petition seeking declarations & orders against 6 sections of the NGO Act, 2016 for whittling away the freedom of association in contravention of the Constitution comes up for hearing tomorrow at 9am. Join us at the Constitutional Court, if you can. #CivicSpaceUG | #Uganda pic.twitter.com/tKzufqrprJ
— Chapter Four Uganda (@chapterfourug) February 23, 2023
“Over the past three years, sections of the NGO Act have been enforced with deeply concerning effects on the ability of citizens to freely exercise their rights,” he told AFP.
It is the first challenge to the Non-Governmental Organisations Act 2016 to be heard by the court.
A date for a ruling has not been set.
The five justices rejected a request by a UN special rapporteur to participate in the petition on the grounds that his written submission revealed he was “not impartial”.
The government has defended the law, saying it was aimed at supporting rights groups and aid agencies.
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Once hailed as enjoying one of Africa’s most vibrant civil societies, Uganda’s long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni has increasingly cracked down on critical activists and opposition politicians in recent years.
Earlier this month, the government announced it would not renew its mandate for the UN’s rights office to operate in the country.
The government said it had made improvements on human rights and its track record would be monitored by strong internal observers.
In 2020, Chapter Four Uganda’s previous executive director Nicholas Opiyo was arrested on money laundering and corruption charges which were subsequently dropped after prosecutors produced no evidence to support the allegations.
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