NAIROBI, Kenya — Ugandan authorities on Friday charged an opposition leader and presidential contender with breaching coronavirus rules and then released him from jail, two days after his arrest sparked protests nationwide that led to the deaths of at least 28 people and almost 600 arrests.
The candidate, Bobi Wine, arrived in court on Friday in the eastern of town of Iganga under heavy security. Sporting a blue polo shirt and jeans, he looked sapped but remained unwavering in his decision to take on the President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda since 1986.
“It’s been tough. It’s been hell,” Mr. Wine said in a video streamed live from the courtroom on his Facebook page, before he was granted bail and released. “We shall be free or we shall die while trying to be free. We are not slaves.”
Mr. Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, was arrested on Wednesday morning in the eastern district of Luuka as he prepared to hold a campaign rally which authorities said violated coronavirus safety guidelines for political campaigns. After he was shoved into a police van, the authorities took him to a police station where his campaign team said he was denied access to lawyers, doctors or family members for almost two days.
The deadly violence came just over a week after campaigns for the general election began and two months before over 17.6 million Ugandans are set to cast their ballots at more than 34,000 polling stations. Mr. Museveni, 76, will be facing off with 10 other candidates in the elections, including Mr. Wine, who is 38.
Originally a musician, Mr. Wine rose to the limelight for his songs accusing the president and his government of limiting freedoms and being an obstacle to Uganda’s progress. In 2017, Mr. Wine won a seat in Parliament, just as Parliament passed a bill that eliminated the presidential age limit of 75 — effectively paving the way for Mr. Museveni to run for a sixth term.
Mr. Wine’s arrest, the second one this month, reflects the adversity facing opposition figures in nations across East Africa — including Burundi, Tanzania and Ethiopia — as they challenge entrenched leaders and political parties.
Authorities had arrested Mr. Wine several times in the past. But after the arrest on Wednesday, demonstrations and rioting erupted across the capital Kampala and in major cities, with video footage showing burned tires and blocked roads. Patrick Amuriat, another presidential candidate, was also detained that day for planning to hold an unauthorized rally, and was later released.
The police say 28 people died in the upheaval — though some news reports cite higher figures — and 65 were injured.
On Friday, the authorities accused Mr. Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform, of organizing the violence and using social media to sow discord. They said they had collected exhibits including “bows and arrows, piles of stocked tires, bottles, drums of fuel and evidence of mobile money transactions funding the rioters.”
“All indicators reveal that these events were not just impromptu actions, but part of a loosely coordinated campaign,” a police spokesman, Fred Enanga, said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch said the government was using Covid-19 measures to crack down on the opposition and media and called on authorities to investigate the killings and allow for peaceful gatherings. Uganda has so far reported 17,148 infections and 159 deaths from the coronavirus.
Speaking on the campaign trail, Mr. Museveni on Friday warned the protesters and said that external parties were influencing events in the country.
“Some of these groups are being used by outsiders, homosexuals, I don’t know — groups outside there who don’t like the stability of Uganda, the independence of Uganda.” he said in a video posted on Twitter. “But they will discover what they are looking for.”
In his early terms, Mr. Museveni was credited with bringing peace, stability and economic growth to the country after years of political violence and turmoil. But his government has faced growing criticism for corruption and persecution of political opponents, gays and journalists, among others.
Joel Ssenyonyi, a spokesman for Mr. Wine’s party, said the arrests and violence would not deter it from continuing to campaign against Mr. Museveni.
“The acts of brutality are intended to weaken those of us in opposition,” he said, “but on the contrary our resolve is strengthened.”