Status: On Trial
Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan medical anthropologist, activist, and writer, was convicted after writing and posting a poem online, in which she criticized Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his mother. In November 2018, Ugandan authorities charged Dr. Nyanzi with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication” under Sections 24 and 25 of the 2011 Computer Misuse Act, and detained her in connection with the poem. She was later acquitted on the charge of “offensive communication,” but in August 2019 the court sentenced her to 18 months imprisonment for “cyber harassment.” Dr. Nyanzi lodged an appeal against the court’s “cyber harassment” conviction, while the prosecution lodged an appeal against the court’s “offensive communication” acquittal. Her case has now been delayed and re-allocated to another judge after Dr. Nyanzi’s legal team protested against a proposed closed-door hearing of the appeal and cross-appeal.
Dr. Nyanzi remains on trial for a separate case dating from 2017, case also related to past criticisms of President Museveni.
An activist, medical anthropologist, and researcher at Makerere University known for her writing and advocacy, Dr. Stella Nyanzi was first arrested and detained by police in April 2017. She was arrested in connection with a poem critical of First Lady and Cabinet Minister of Education Janet Museveni and President Museveni, prompted by the government’s refusal to provide sanitary pads in schools. In her criticism, Dr. Nyanzi referred to the Ugandan President as “a pair of buttocks;” she was sentenced under the charges of “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication.” On May 10, 2017, she was released from custody on non-cash bail of 10 million Ugandan shillings, approximately $2,924. This case has been stayed pending a May 2017 petition that was filed in response to the prosecution’s request to investigate Dr. Nyanzi’s mental health.
In November 2018, Dr. Nyanzi was arrested again on charges of “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication” after posting a poem on Facebook in September 2018. For the duration of her trial, Dr. Nyanzi was detained at Luzira Women’s Prison in Kampala, a maximum security facility. In August 2019, she was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “cyber harassment” but was acquitted on the charge of “offensive communication.” The prosecution appealed the court’s acquittal of “offensive communication,” after Dr. Nyanzi lodged an appeal against her conviction. Although both appeals were due for hearings on October 10, 2019, both were postponed following protests from Dr. Nyanzi’s legal team regarding a proposed closed-door hearing of the appeal and cross-appeal. The case was re-allocated to another judge who ultimately ruled in Dr. Nyanzi’s favor. On February 20, 2020, a High Court Judge in Kampala overturned the 2018 charges against Dr. Nyanzi’s for “cyber harassment,” declaring that the magistrates court had denied Dr. Nyanzi a fair hearing and had ruled beyond its jurisdiction. She was released from custody the same day. Dr. Nyanzi remains on trial for the case brought against her in 2017, after she referred to President Museveni as “a pair of buttocks.”
Dr. Nyanzi writes about about HIV/AIDS, sexuality, and women’s health, and is a prominent scholar in African queer studies. Aside from her career in health, social research, and writing, Dr. Nyanzi is a vocal activist. She leads Pads4Girls, a campaign to provide free sanitary pads. Within her activism, she practices “radical rudeness,” a tactic used widely in Uganda during British colonial rule to disrupt relationships with oppressors that manners and polite conventions protected. Dr. Nyanzi’s blunt, fearless poems and commentary are examples of “radical rudeness.” During the August 2019 hearing, at which she was forced to appear via video call, Dr. Nyanzi exposed her breasts in protest of her sentence. She then expressed disappointment of her acquittal on “offensive communication,” saying, “I intended to annoy Yoweri Museveni. We are tired of his dictatorship.”
February 20, 2020: Dr. Nyanzi wins an appeal of her “cyber harassment” conviction. A High Court Judge in Kampala declares that the magistrates court denied her a fair hearing and had ruled outside of its jurisdiction. After spending approximately 16 months at Luzira prison, Dr. Nyanzi is released. There are loud cheers upon her release, but amidst the celebration, Nyanzi affirms that she will not tone down her criticism of President Museveni and his government, asking: “How long are Ugandans going to be silent because they are going to fear accusations of offence?”
January 16, 2020: Nyanzi receives the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression. Still in custody, Dr. Nyanzi writes in an acceptance letter smuggled out of Luzira prison that “Unlawful laws are used in unjust courts to punish citizens whose only crime is exercising their constitutional freedom to write boldly about the dictatorship.”
December 2019: In connection with Dr. Nyanzi’s arrest in April 2017, the court holds a hearing on the state’s request for a forced mental examination of Dr. Nyanzi before she pleads to the charges against her. The magistrate suspends the hearing pending a result from a petition filed in response to the forced examination, in which Nyanzi’s team is challenging the constitutionality of the 1938 Mental Treatment Act.
August 2, 2019: Dr. Nyanzi is sentenced to 18 months in prison under the charge of “cyber harassment” in connection to her poem about President Museveni and his mother posted in September 2018.
April to July 2019: Dr. Nyanzi’s trial continues. In April, the court accepts new evidence into Dr. Nyanzi’s case. In May, Dr. Nyanzi’s legal team hires computer law experts to testify in her defense. Two months later, the magistrate rules that Dr. Nyanzi’s 19 defense witnesses must testify within the span of two days. Her defense team protests the order.
January 9, 2019: Dr. Nyanzi, intending to attend a court hearing related to her termination from Makerere University, requests a delay from the court, reporting that she suffered a miscarriage while detained in Luzira prison and is feeling sick.
December 20, 2018: Dr. Nyanzi’s case is again continued, and she remains in Luzira maximum-security prison until the new year.
November 22, 2018: The court further remands Dr. Nyanzi until her next court hearing in December. Dr. Nyanzi and her legal team reportedly have no objection to the prosecution’s call to keep her in detention.
November 2, 2018: Attending a protest at Makerere University calling for her reinstatement, as ordered by an appeals tribunal in October, and salary raises, Dr. Nyanzi is arrested in connection with another poem she wrote in September 2018 about President Museveni and his mother. The court rules that she must remain in custody until her plea hearing.
October 2, 2018: A staff appeals tribunal orders Makerere University management to immediately reinstate Dr. Nyanzi, ruling that her former employer illegally suspended her in March 2017. The appeals tribunal also orders Makerere University to pay Dr. Nyanzi outstanding emoluments within ten business days.
June 30, 2018: Dr. Nyanzi protests in Kampala, joining feminists and activists calling for Ugandan authorities to investigate murders of women, combat gender-based violence, and end victim-blaming in police culture.
May 10, 2017: Dr. Nyanzi appears before a Kampala court after serving a month in jail, appearing frail and collapsing before the judge. Her lawyer confirms that she suffers from hypertension and malaria. The magistrate sets Dr. Nyanzi’s non-cash bond at 10 million Ugandan shillings (approximately $2,700), and she is released from custody as her case continues.
April 12, 2017: The prosecution sends psychiatrists to forcibly evaluate Dr. Nyanzi’s mental health while she is held in custody, according to Dr. Nyanzi’s lawyer. Dr. Nyanzi resists the evaluation, and the psychiatrists do not complete the tests. A spokesperson for Uganda’s prisons denied this claim.
April 10, 2017: On the day Dr. Nyanzi plans to distribute free pads in southwestern Uganda, she is arrested and detained by the police on various charges, including “cyber harassment and offensive communication” and using the internet to “disturb the peace, quiet, or right to privacy” of President Yoweri Museveni. Her arrest appears in connection to two poems she wrote, in which she referred to President Museveni as a “pair of buttocks” and First Lady Museveni as “empty-brained.”
February to April 2017: Dr. Nyanzi collects funding via GoFundMe and plans to distribute sanitary pads to First Lady Museveni’s former constituents from when she served as a member of Parliament in southwestern Uganda.
March 31, 2017: The vice-chancellor of Makerere University suspends Dr. Nyanzi indefinitely after a board member hears about her comments about First Lady Museveni.
February 15, 2017: Dr. Stella Nyanzi writes about First Lady and Cabinet Minister of Education Janet Museveni’s refusal to provide sanitary pads in schools.
“Museveni matako nyo! Ebyo byeyayogedde e Masindi yabadde ayogera lutako.
I mean, seriously, when buttocks shake and jiggle, while the legs are walking, do you hear other body parts complaining? When buttocks produce shit, while the brain is thinking, is anyone shocked? When buttocks fart, are we surprised?
That is what buttocks do. They shake, jiggle, shit and fart. Museveni is just another pair of buttocks. Rather than being shocked by what the matako said in Masindi, Ugandans should be shocked that we allowed these buttocks to continue leading our country. Matako butako.” — Dr. Stella Nyanzi, posted on Facebook on January 27, 2017
Two poems written by Dr. Stella Nyanzi in early 2017 were published on Facebook about President Yoweri Museveni and First Lady and Cabinet Minister of Education Janet Museveni and used as evidence against her on charges of “cyber harassment and offensive communication.”
Dr. Nyanzi wrote another poem about President Museveni in September 2018, which was also used against her on charges of “cyber harassment and offensive communication.”