KAMPALA, Uganda — Uganda's parliament on Tuesday passed a contentious bill that critics say will make it impossible to stage street protests against the country's long-serving president, following months of confrontation between the authorities and activists who had mounted a campaign to have the legislation jettisoned.
The "Public Order Management Bill" was passed five days after opposition lawmakers staged a fierce attempt to filibuster its passage amid concerns it gives Ugandan police dictatorial powers to decide who can stage a public event of a political nature.
Uganda's parliament is dominated by the ruling party, and on Thursday an opposition lawmaker – in an apparent bid to delay voting on the bill – tore up a roster of lawmakers to vote on the bill as the speaker looked on.
Amnesty International said Monday that the legislation "represents a serious blow to open political debate" in a country that is seeing more and more protests against President Yoweri Museveni, who has held power for nearly three decades.
"The bill imposes wide ranging restrictions on public meetings and gives the police unprecedented powers to prohibit and disperse public gatherings of a political nature," the rights watchdog said in a statement.
The law gives the police powers to control public meetings, including the use of force to break up gatherings held without prior authorization. Even meetings of a political nature held between three people must be authorized by the police, according to the law. Activists who had tried to challenge the legislation in court note that the country's constitution guarantees the right to hold peaceful gatherings.
The bill was passed amid a crackdown against street protesters in the capital, Kampala, where the security forces routinely use tear gas and live ammunition to disperse opposition supporters. Last month police restricted the movements of the mayor of Kampala, an opposition politician who is a fierce critic of the president, as well as Kizza Besigye, a three-time presidential candidate.
Uganda has been the scene since 2011 of a protest movement against corruption and the high cost of living. But most of the planned rallies have been actively blocked by the police under what they call the "preventive arrest" of protest leaders. The rights group Human Rights Watch says Uganda's security forces killed at least nine people in confrontations with protesters in April 2011.
Maria Burnett, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the law is a "devastating" attack on freedom of expression and assembly" in the East African country where space for political dissent is already limited.
"Political demonstrations already face serious obstacles, including the use of live ammunition on innocent bystanders and demonstrators," she said. "With this law in force, any spontaneous peaceful demonstration of more than three people will be a criminal act."
Museveni, who took power by force in 1986, is increasingly accused of wanting to rule for life and of using the security forces to intimidate the opposition and civic groups critical of his long rule. Some now openly call Museveni a despot, although the president has recently defended the police's tactics on the grounds that public demonstrations pose a threat to economic stability.
Uganda, which is about to become one of Africa's major oil producers, has not had a peaceful transfer of power since independence from Britain in 1962. Some critics believe Museveni is grooming his son – an army brigadier who now is in charge of Uganda's special forces – to become the country's next president.
The allegation was recently given credence when a four-star army general demanded an official inquiry into reports that high-ranking government officials were at risk of assassination if they opposed the rise of Museveni's son. That general has since gone to London and faces arrest if he returns to Uganda.