Tokyo Olympics 2020: What is happening with Ugandan weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko who went missing in Japan?
It seemed after Ssekitoleko returned to his homeland, it will be the end of this lost and found story but it was not to be. What transpired after his landing in his homeland tells more about the weightlifter and draws a picture of several others like him in his country.
On 16 July, seven days before the Olympics began in Tokyo, Julius Ssekitoleko, 20, a weightlifter from Uganda went missing from his hotel in Osaka, Japan. With Tokyo under a state of emergency due to the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, his disappearance made world news.
He was found four days later, far from Osaka, in Mie. And was then sent back to his homeland as Japan police did not find him involved in any crime.
On his return on 23 July, the Ugandan government through a statement said that they are committed to Ssekitoleko's continuous rehabilitation to not only help him in his career, "but also help him understand how such acts of misconduct can not only affect him as an athlete but also other athletes in the sports sector and the nation at large."
It seemed after Ssekitoleko returned to his homeland, it will be the end of this lost and found story. It was not to be. What transpired after his landing in his homeland tells more about the weightlifter and draws a picture of several others like him in his country.
Walter Mwesigye, a Ugandan journalist who has been closely following the story, told Firstpost that Ssekitoleko was taken to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Kampala for interrogation after his arrest on 23 July (Friday) by the local police. From there, he was taken to another police station where he was kept till Monday, before being relocated to CID in Kampala where he was held till Wednesday.
As per the law in Uganda, police cannot keep anyone in custody for more than 48 hours. In other words, police need to show the accused in court after 48 hours. In Ssekitoleko's case, a clear violation of law had taken place as he was not taken to court till Monday.
On Wednesday, he was released on police bond but that is also not where the story ends. By the time he was released, a new chapter was added to Ssekitoleko's story. He was now charged with a conspiracy to defraud his government.
Julius Ssekitoleko is being held illegally by @PoliceUg for 6 days now. He has not been taken to court as police is still looking for a clear charge against him.
Ssekitoleko doesn't need incarceration, he needs advice and help. #StandWithSsekitoleko pic.twitter.com/jitZ5b3MOt
— Walter Mwesigye (@MwesigyeWalter) July 28, 2021
Spokeperson for Uganda's CID, said Ssekitoleko may have conspired with a government official to be included on the team for Japan. As per the spokesperson, the doubts were raised on how Ssekitoleko went to Japan when he was not qualified for the Games.
"Investigations will confirm the depth of the conspiracy to defraud the government as he had been paid allowances at the time of his disappearance," the spokesman, Charles Twine, had told AFP.
What's interesting here is that on 23 July, when Ssekitoleko landed in Kampala, the same spokesperson had said that the government will help the weightlifter with counselling.
Walter told Firstpost, "When they first arrested Julius they said they wanted to counsel him and that he also had suicidal thoughts and that they were protecting him from taking his own life. That was a statement spokesperson of the CID made on 23rd."
On 24 July, Twine told a radio channel that they had not found any charge to be put up against Julius. "On Sunday, some lawyers went to see him, some member of parliaments went to see him in jail. Then, on Monday, the CID said they were now interested to know how Julius left the country because they think it could have been in an attempt to human trafficking," said Walter. Julius was released on police bond but the police will continue to interrogate on these charges put against the 20-year-old.
They are waiting for the country's Weightlifting Federations officials and Olympic Committee members to return from the Games to resume the investigation. So from just being a lost foreign athlete in Japan, Ssekitoleko is now being looked at with suspicion in his own country and may serve 10 years in jail if his charges are found to be true.
Is Ssekitoleko really an enemy to his nation or he is just one of the jobless young men in Uganda searching for ways to earn livelihood in his country, where the support from the government is minimum?
While there are many who think he committed a crime in Uganda, others sympathise with the young weightlifter and find a reflection of their own stories in his. Before leaving his hotel, he had left a note in his room, which read that he wanted to work in Japan and that his belongings be returned to his family back home.
We paid a visit to Julius Ssekitoleko's wife Desire. The 24-year old who is five months pregnant shares a single-roomed house with her sister in Kisugu #MwasuzeMutya pic.twitter.com/CLstwE8rnp
— NTV UGANDA (@ntvuganda) July 26, 2021
Ugandan legislator Betty Nambooze told AFP that "Ssekitoleko is not a criminal, he is a victim of an economy that works for the few (in the) privileged class."
The Union of Uganda Sports Federations and Associations had also condemned his detention.
"He deserves sympathy, not harsh treatment" the head of the union, Moses Muhangi, had earlier said.
Walter said that Julius is not the first athlete from Uganda to attempt something like this - going abroad as part of a team and disappearing in a foreign land, finding work, and eventually settling there. And he certainly won't be the last.
After Julius left for Japan, hoping he will be playing at the Olympics, his family was evicted from their rented home. His wife is six months pregnant and his mother had always been telling him to quit the sport and take up a job to support the family.
Walter himself feels Julius is no criminal but a victim of his own stressed conditions.
"With the kind of background Julius comes from, he is basically a representative of what happens to athletes, men and women, in Uganda. There is very little support for them in this country. And Julius definitely has no mental issues, but he was pressed by the conditions he was going through. His wife is pregnant, five weeks to give birth. They were evicted from his rented house just shortly after he had left for Japan.
"This is a guy who almost feeds his mother, his wife, and himself. He has no job, he is just a sports guy. Basically, his financial status really pushed him to where he was at that point."
After being released from jail, Julius was seen wearing all his medals, as if making a statement to the government that he is not a criminal but an athlete who has lost his way due to the economic crisis in his country.
Julius Ssekitoleko has gained his temporary freedom after six days in police custody. The soft-spoken athlete was detained on return from Japan where he had disappeared from an Olympic training camp. He says he is not aware of the charges preferred against him. pic.twitter.com/ss4Eb5Fps6
— Baba Tv Uganda (@babatvuganda) July 28, 2021
Speaking to the media post his release, he told journalists that he spent a long time to qualify for the Olympics and he was hopeful he would get the qualification and maybe win a medal. He had hoped that probably the medal will come with some money and he will be recognised by the government when he returns, which could help him boost his finances. That did not happen, and after he was told he had not been qualified for the Games, he moved out of the hotel. His dreams had crashed, and he wanted to start afresh.
Julius Ssekitoleko's mother showed me medals his son has won over years first as a rugby player and then a weightlifter. The lad is hardworking. pic.twitter.com/dv0IxA5seH
— Blanshe Musinguzi (@Johnblanshe_m) July 22, 2021
"We have seen that trend happen. If Julius had successfully managed to stay in Japan, it would not be the first time for a sportsman or woman from Uganda to go for such a competition and not return.
"We have many boxers, footballers, other athletes who have taken the step that Julius took and managed to move on. It was just that Julius was unlucky. Everybody wants a better life, here in Uganda or anywhere in the world."
As soon as the news of Julius' arrest came, a wave of sympathy ran across Uganda. On Twitter, his sympathisers began a hashtag #StandWithSsekitoleko was started to support him. A crowdfund is being raised, started by Walter himself, to support Ssekitoleko financially.
The lawyers who came forwarded to help him did it free of cost.
"It is an emotional attachment for many people here in Uganda who got to know about Julius case. It is a shared problem in the country. Julius is just one out of 100 Ugandas who leave this country," concluded Walter.
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