Uganda Detains Weight Lifter Who Went Missing in Japan
NAIROBI, Kenya – Days after returning home, Ugandan authorities are detaining without charge a weightlifter who went missing in Japan, where he hoped to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, and ignoring his family’s calls for his release.
Julius Ssekitoleko, 20, has been in police custody since Friday when he returned from Japan, where he was missing from an Olympic training camp for five days.
Ugandan officials said they were investigating how he traveled to Japan with his coach, even though he had not qualified to be part of the country’s Olympic team.
“What is visibly clear here is that there is a probable fraud involving the airlifting of a person with full knowledge of the facts that he or she was not qualified,” said Charles Twiine, spokesman for the Uganda Criminal Investigations Directorate, at a press conference Monday evening.
“Now the fundamental question is: was he part of the fraud as a conspirator? He said, explaining the reason for Mr Ssekitoleko’s detention.
Mr Twiine said the weightlifter was likely to receive bail, but did not answer questions about what crimes Mr Ssekitoleko might be charged with or when he might be released or brought to court. Uganda’s constitution requires that those arrested or detained be released or brought to court no later than 48 hours after their arrest.
Rights groups have accused President Yoweri Museveni’s government of arbitrarily arresting and illegally detaining suspects for long periods of time without expeditious or fair trials.
Peter Munaabi, a lawyer representing Mr Ssekitoleko’s family, said on Tuesday that they had filed a lawsuit for his unconditional release.
Mr Ssekitoleko was first reported missing on July 16 after failing to appear for a coronavirus test while staying at a training camp in Izumisano, a city in Osaka Prefecture, in western Japan. As a search began, a note was found in which he said he did not want to return home to Uganda and hoped to find work in Japan. Five days later, police found him in Yokkaichi Town, Mie Prefecture.
The Olympic prospect competes in the men’s 56 and 67 kilogram weightlifting divisions, according to Twiine, and has represented Uganda at competitions in countries including Kenya, Morocco, Egypt and Australia.
While it is still unclear how he got to Japan without qualifying, Mr Ssekitoleko was frustrated after being told by sports officials that he did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, officials said. During a police interrogation in Uganda, he told police that he traveled to Tokyo with the confidence that he would attend.
Mr Ssekitoleko’s family and many in Uganda have urged the government to release him, saying his story is emblematic of the circumstances facing many young Ugandans who are struggling to make ends meet. The East African nation has one of the youngest populations in the world, and the multi-month lockdowns to stem the coronavirus pandemic have severely affected economic growth.
Mr Ssekitoleko’s wife Desire Nampeewo, who is five months pregnant, said they had recently encountered financial difficulties and were evicted from their home after defaulting on their rent.
“If there is a person or a country that can support him, they should do it,” said his mother, Juliet Nalwadda. “He really enjoys sports. I tried and failed to convince him to get away with it because he won nothing.
On social media, many used the hashtag #StandWithSsekitoleko to show solidarity with the athlete. Henry K. Tumukunde, presidential candidate in Uganda’s January elections, said the 20-year-old should be given “a second chance”.
“How many people can stand up and say they were good enough to represent the country at a major sporting event?” »Mr. Tumukunde asked on twitter. “Talent needs guidance and the right environment to be fully realized. “
But Jacob Siminyu, the spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, said Ugandans should not “embarrass the country” or risk consequences if they did.
“When you are Ugandan, and you are outside, do not discredit the name of your country,” Siminyu said at Monday’s press conference.
Musinguzi Blanshe contributed reporting from Kampala, Uganda.
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