Uganda’s top opposition leader said on Thursday that he was seized at the airport and put under house arrest following his return from abroad, a claim the authorities denied despite a history of crackdowns by the East African nation’s autocratic ruler against his leading challenger.
The opposition figure, Bobi Wine, said men he did not know had grabbed him after he disembarked from his flight at Entebbe International Airport. They twisted his arms behind his back, he said, and he was whisked into a nearby car, sandwiched between two men with guns and driven off.
Afterward, he was transferred to a van where, he said, several soldiers sat on him and kicked his head with their boots. Mr. Wine was then driven to his home in the capital, Kampala, where he said dozens of security officers were already stationed inside and outside the compound.
“I am alive but I am under house arrest,” Mr. Wine said in a phone interview on Thursday afternoon.
Uganda’s police force denied that he had been arrested, saying that they had “successfully escorted” Mr. Wine to his home, where he was with family and friends. “Disregard rumors of his arrest by propagandists,” the police force said in a statement on X, the social media platform formerly called Twitter.
Mr. Wine, who was returning to Uganda after a two-week trip abroad, said security forces had beaten the gatekeeper and gardener at his home, squeezing his genitals. The guard was taken to the hospital for treatment, he said.
He also said that 300 of his supporters, as well as two dozen government officials from the opposition, along with journalists covering his return, had been arrested in the capital and elsewhere. Those figures could not immediately be confirmed.
Mr. Wine said security forces had fired tear gas and live bullets to disperse supporters near his home. After turning on the camera on his phone, he pointed to a monitor from outdoor cameras that showed security forces patrolling the streets around his home, as well as several police patrol pickup trucks and prison vans.
“I am surrounded by the military and nobody is allowed to leave and no one is allowed to come,” he said.
Security forces also sealed off the offices of Mr. Wine’s party and barred people from entering or leaving, according to the party’s secretary general, David Lewis Rubongoya.
“The levels of fear are incredible,” Mr. Rubongoya said in a post on X.
Mr. Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi, rose in recent years to become the biggest challenger to the decades-long rule of President Yoweri Museveni. A key Western ally, Mr. Museveni has governed the landlocked nation with an iron grip since 1986, muzzling the press, jailing dissidents and winning six terms in office through elections marred by allegations of fraud and rigging.
Mr. Wine, a musician-turned-lawmaker, challenged Mr. Museveni for the presidency in the 2021 elections. In the months before and after the bloody and contentious vote, Mr. Wine was beaten, tear-gassed and detained, and security forces surrounded his house.
The authorities also abducted his supporters and subjected them to cruel treatment, human rights groups say. Mr. Wine and others have accused Mr. Museveni, his son and other top government officials of committing crimes against humanity, and have filed a case against them in the International Criminal Court.
Mr. Wine’s lawyer, Bruce Afran, condemned the authorities’ actions on Thursday, saying they were “designed to interfere with the basic right of Ugandans to engage in political activity, and to block the opposition leader from meeting with the people of his country.”
Mr. Wine’s claim of mistreatment comes as the Ugandan government faces widespread condemnation for enacting one of the world’s most punitive anti-gay laws. The United States and the European Union have condemned the law, and the World Bank has halted any new funding to the country.
Mr. Wine’s trip took him to Canada, the United States and South Africa. Besides holding political rallies with his supporters abroad, he also attended screenings of a new documentary called “Bobi Wine: The People’s President.”
“They are punishing me for the film,” Mr. Wine said when asked why he thought the government had placed him under house arrest. “They are punishing me for exposing them.”
On Thursday evening, Mr. Wine said that he was at home with his wife, the activist Barbie Kyagulanyi, and that his family had been left in disarray.
He said he had been looking forward to taking his 15-year-old daughter out for a birthday dinner. His 8-year-old daughter was feeling “traumatized” and confused, he said. And his 13-year-old son was stranded at a roadblock and unable to get home from school.
“He is stuck,” he said. “I now have to negotiate to allow my son to come back home.”