04/21/2014 11:57 EDT | Updated 06/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Ugandan athletics body suspends national coach who faces charges of sexual harassment

KAMPALA, Uganda - Uganda's athletics body suspended a coach who is accused of sexually harassing female runners, an official said on Monday, after Ugandan police started investigating the man whose alleged misconduct has sparked calls for his arrest and prosecution.

The suspended coach, Peter Wemali, faces "a range of allegations" related to suspected sexual harassment of female runners who recently trained under him in eastern Uganda, said Beatrice Ayikoru of the Uganda Athletics Federation.

"Sexual harassment is criminal, so it has to be investigated by those who have the mandate to do so," she said, talking about an ongoing police investigation.

Wemali hasn't issued any comment on the charges.

Ayikoru said the decision to suspend Wemali was taken after some athletes complained in an unsigned letter that prompted a criminal investigation. No female runner has come forward to complain about Wemali, she said, apparently because they are afraid of retaliation.

Wemali's alleged wrongdoing was first reported by the Ugandan Olympic runner Moses Kipsiro, who told a local newspaper last month that the coach urged female runners to have sex or give birth to improve their performance. Kipsiro, who said some female runners had confided in him, told Uganda's Daily Monitor newspaper that Wemali urged the runners to have sex regularly because then "their legs move easily."

One unnamed runner told the newspaper that Wemali "threatened to chase us from (training) camp if we ever said anything or turned down his sexual advances."

Details of the allegations —as well as Kipsiro's belief that the coach was being protected by athletics officials who knew about his alleged misconduct — shocked many in this East African country and sparked calls for Wemali's arrest and prosecution. Some Ugandan lawmakers have demanded an investigation into the coach's alleged misdeeds.

Wemali has long been the subject of numerous allegations involving sexual abuse of female runners, including one who quit running under unexplained circumstances, said Rafael Kasajja, a Ugandan athletics coach. But Wemali appeared to have the backing of Ugandan athletics officials, possibly discouraging his alleged victims from coming forward to launch official complaints. Without the intervention of Kipsiro, the male runner who exposed Wemali's alleged crimes, "the allegations would have remained a secret," he said.

Ayikoru, the athletics official, said Wemali could return to his job if the criminal investigation uncovers no wrongdoing.

"The suspension is temporary," she said.