Environmental watchdogs Saturday condemned the arrest of six Ugandan rights campaigners as a coordinated effort to silence critics of a contested energy project involving French oil giant Total.
The activists from AFIEGO, the country's highest-profile environmental defenders group, were detained without charge at a police station outside Kampala on Friday, the organisation said in a statement.
Its French partners, Amis de la Terre France (Friends of the Earth) and Survie (Survival), called for their immediate release and said the arrests fit a pattern of harassment against critics of the multi-billion dollar oil venture.
"For several months, AFIEGO has been the target of continuous and increasing pressure and intimidation from the Ugandan authorities, who want to prevent it from continuing its activities against Total's mega-oil project," the French NGOs said in a statement.
They said it was the fifth time in 15 days that critics of the Total project had been targeted.
NGOs shut down
AFIEGO, which was among 54 NGOs shut down by Ugandan authorities in August for alleged regulatory breaches, said the latest crackdown was a "coordinated effort to silence critical voices" speaking up for communities threatened by the oil project.
In April, the governments of Uganda and Tanzania signed a deal with Total and China's CNOOC paving the way for the construction of a pipeline stretching 1,400 kilometres (900 miles) through the East African nations.
The crude will be pumped from oil fields in the Lake Albert region of Uganda's west through Tanzania to the Indian Ocean.
Total had promised to take steps to reduce the $3.5 billion project's impact on people and the environment.
But environment groups said the project had resulted in tens of thousands of farmers losing access to their land, and warned of ecological destruction if the pipeline went ahead in the richly-biodiverse region.
AFIEGO was among a consortium of environment groups that filed a lawsuit against Total in French courts in October 2019, accusing the group of failing to uphold its legal obligations to protect the environment and the rights of people affected by the project.