Ugandan novelist Rukirabashaija named 2021 International Writer of Courage

Ugandan novelist Rukirabashaija named 2021 International Writer of Courage

Ugandan novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who was subjected to torture by his home country's government while detained last year, has been named the International Writer of Courage at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony.

The award is given to someone who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs and is announced by the winner of the PEN Pinter Prize. This year's winner Tsitsi Dangarembga made the announcement at a ceremony at the British Library on 11th October.

PEN said it is "gravely concerned" about the physical safety and welfare of Rukirabashaija and "condemns the unlawful arrest, detention and ongoing harassment" of the writer.

Dangarembga paid tribute to Rukirabashaija, saying: "My career has taught me that the work of a writer is doing and that when circumstances allow, this doing is in fact writing.  On the other hand, when circumstances do not allow for the writing process, a writer continues the expression that is no longer possible in literature, or that has become inadequate through literature with other actions. I have come to see that the work of writing is not to be seen to be doing but, in fact, to do and to keep on doing, regardless of circumstances.  Only sometimes, if a writer is very fortunate, is that doing seen.”

On 13th April 2020, Rukirabashaija was arrested at his home by officers from the Ugandan Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) before being held for seven days, during which time he was blindfolded, held in solitary confinement, and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment, including torture. The interrogation centred on his novel The Greedy Barbarian, which explores themes of high-level corruption in a fictional country and includes characters in the political and military establishment. His subsequent work, Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, is an account of the torture he was subjected to during this time.

A week later, he was brought before Iganga Magistrates Court and charged with "an act likely to spread the infection of disease". The Ugandan authorities claimed that he "unlawfully/negligently posted messages on his Facebook account mobilising the public against complying with directives and public health guidelines issued to prevent the spread of Covid-19". He was remanded in custody to Busesa government prison, 17km from his home.

Rukirabashaija was due to reappear at the Iganga Magistrate court on 6th May 2020 to face the charges, which he vehemently denied. Months later, following the failure of the state to appear before court to argue the case for a period of six months, the case was dismissed and Rukirabashaija was discharged. However, the prosecution reinstated the charge, claiming readiness to prosecute and present witnesses.

On 18th September that year, Rukirabashaija was arrested again at his home in Iganga District, Kigulu County, by officers from the CMI. Reports stated the arresting officers informed Rukirabashaija’s wife and a local council official that the arrest was related to Rukirabashaija’s continued writing, which they claimed was critical of President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni.

Rukirabashaija was detained for three days in violation of Ugandan law, which requires that arrested persons be charged in court within 48 hours of their arrest. During this time, the arresting officers questioned him about Banana Republic. On 21st September, he was released on police bond, pending investigation for the offence of "inciting violence and promoting sectarianism", charges widely believed to relate to his writings.

The police bond required him to report to the police at the Special Investigations Unit at Kireka, 240km away from his home, on a fortnightly basis for an indefinite period. In May 2021, the Magistrates Court discharged the reinstated case against Rukirabashaija, due to non-appearance of the complainant. Nevertheless, Rukirabashaija remains on police bond, and is required to report to the police on a fortnightly basis.

He has informed his lawyers that he is still undergoing treatment for injuries he suffered during his detention in April 2020. Furthermore, state security agents continue to withhold his computer, mobile phone, and data storage bank although these are not included as exhibits in the court case against him. He has also reported that he and his family are constant targets of extrajudicial surveillance by individuals believed to be state security agents. 

The author said: "I would like to congratulate Tsitsi Dangarembga for the deserved PEN Pinter Prize and thank her wholeheartedly for having chosen to share with me this prestigious prize. If it weren’t for PEN, I would still be somewhere in prison—perhaps forgotten. When I was hanging on chains in the dungeons, I swore to my tormentors that I would never write again if they gave me a chance to live—as if they were some deities or God. Truth is, I survived death. I appreciate PEN for advocating for my freedom of expression and the different centres all over the world that sent in lovely messages of courage. I received the messages with smiles even though I was in horrendous pain."