Ugandan police said Wednesday they were interrogating a weightlifter who disappeared in Japan after failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, as his family appealed for his release from custody.
Julius Ssekitoleko, 20, vanished from an Olympic training camp after learning he did not meet standards to compete in the Games, making headlines around the world as Japanese officials scrambled to locate him.
He was found and flown home to Uganda where government officials said he would undergo counselling.
But he was taken into police custody, said family members who have petitioned the courts for his release.
“It is heartbreaking to see my son sharing a cell with criminals when he is innocent,” the athlete’s mother, Juliet Nalwadda, said Wednesday.
“His rights are being violated by police detaining him indefinitely. I appeal to the government, and sportsmen and women, to secure his release. This is an innocent young man. He didn’t want to hurt anyone. Why is he being treated like a criminal?”
A spokesman for Uganda’s criminal investigations department said Ssekitoleko was being held for interrogation over suspected “fraud”.
“We have been informed Ssekitoleko in the first place did not qualify to be on the team. So how did he get there, who could have been behind his movement, this is what the police are trying to establish,” the spokesman, Charles Twine, said.
“If there is evidence of fraud or an illegal act, Ssekitoleko will be taken to court and charged in line with the offence committed. If there is no evidence, he will be set free.”
Uganda’s weightlifting federation said Ssekitoleko came from a poor family and had been training very hard for his first Olympics.
After he went missing, a note was found in Ssekitoleko’s hotel room in which he said he wanted to work in Japan and asked that his belongings be sent to his family in Uganda.
The Union of Uganda Sports Federations and Associations condemned Ssekitoleko’s ongoing detention and called for his immediate release so he could be reunited with his family.
“He deserves sympathy, not harsh treatment” the head of the union, Moses Muhangi, said
Ssekitoleko’s plight has stirred mixed reactions in Uganda. The government was forced to apologise to Japan over the incident that Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs labelled “unacceptable conduct and treachery”.
But others have been more sympathetic toward the young athlete whose dreams were dashed.
“Ssekitoleko is not a criminal, he is a victim of an economy that works for the few (in the) privileged class,” Ugandan legislator Betty Nambooze said Wednesday.