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Sunday, February 1, 2015
- Uganda’s gays are bracing themselves for a spate of arrests and harassment as the country’s draconian anti-gay bill was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni on Monday, Feb. 24.
One gay man from Kamapla told IPS after the signing of the bill that there was nothing that he could do now and “the only thing [left] is to try my best and [leave the country] for a safer place.”
“There’s no one who says I want to become gay, especially here in Uganda. You’re just born with it. You do not choose,” he added.
The new bill, officially named the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, strengthens existing punishments for those caught having gay sex and prescribes jail terms up to life for “aggravated homosexuality” — including sex with a minor or where one partner is HIV positive. The bill also includes the “offence of homosexuality” – this is where a person convicted of homosexuality is liable to life imprisonment.
Human rights lawyer John Francis Onyango, who has represented many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and intersex (LGBTI) Ugandans, said he had “definitely” seen an increase in arrests of LGBTI people since the bill was passed by parliament on Dec. 20.
“And also many gay persons are living in apprehension about their security, their freedom and capacity to associate,” he told IPS, adding that he was currently representing the LGBTI community in court on a number of cases. Before the signing of the anti-gay bill into law, this East African nation already had some laws against those caught having gay sex.
Museveni defied international condemnation by signing the bill during a packed public ceremony at State House on Feb. 24.
It took many by surprise as Museveni said only late last week that he would put the legislation on hold while he sought advice from U.S. scientists on whether homosexuality is caused by nature or nurture.
But member of parliament Sam Okuonzi, who chairs the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, told IPS that Museveni had been under “tremendous pressure” from a growing chorus of MPs, religious leaders and locals to sign the bill. “There is nothing that has united this country so completely and so strongly as this bill,” he said.
MP Stanley Omwonya told IPS after Museveni had approved it: “It’s really (about) preserving our culture. We want our people to be morally upright.”
Human rights activists have long vowed to challenge the law in court, arguing that it violates international human rights standards and is unconstitutional. Ugandan gay rights activist and winner of the 2011 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, Frank Mugisha, tweeted: “Signing the anti-gay bill Museveni scores at his own goal post – we shall challenge this law & the old law.”
In another post he said “@YKMusevenii knows we shall over turn this law in the constitutional court & with our determination we wont stop at nothing.”
Onyango said that the “the Anti-Homosexuality Bill also raises broader concerns about mainstream human rights organisations, about their shrinking space for operation of the civil society organisations (CSOs).” According to the bill, if an NGO “promotes homosexuality” then it can be closed and its directors or leaders prosecuted.
In a statement released on Monday, Feb. 24, Human Rights Watch said Museveni had dealt a “dramatic blow to freedom expression and association in Uganda.”
Just over a week ago, U.S. President Barack Obama warned Museveni that enacting the legislation would “complicate our valued relationship with Uganda”. In the past Obama has sent U.S. troops as advisors to Uganda to help the country fight the rebel Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and track down its leader, Joseph Kony. The LRA has been responsible for mass murder, rape and kidnapping in Uganda’s north.
Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, the European Union and South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu also released statements or spoke out over the anti-gay bill, with some warning there may be aid cuts if it was brought into force.
According to one report on Feb. 24, Norway and Denmark immediately said they were freezing or diverting aid while Austria said it was reviewing assistance. Canada, the White House and the United Nations released a strong statement condemning the law. The EU said approving the legislation was “draconian” while the United Kingdom said it was “deeply saddened and disappointed”.
Ugandan lawyer and human rights activist Adrian Jjuuko told IPS that the country should brace itself for aid cuts. But he stressed that Uganda needed “sanctions that don’t affect the common person but rather the people passing the law.”
“There are some aspects of aid that could be cut, rather than other aspects of aid. You wouldn’t cut aid that goes to healthcare, you can’t cut aid that goes to education,” said Jjuko, who is the executive director of NGO Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum.
“Maybe in terms of military spending and things like that…if that’s the kind of aid that’s cut, that’s the cut that will be felt because it goes directly to the president, his personal interests and ambitions, rather than the people of Uganda.”
He said that to cut aid over the issue of the anti-gay bill alone would be like turning a blind eye to other human rights violations in Uganda.
“The gay issue is not the only issue in this country,” Jjuuko said. “Seen as a whole issue, Uganda’s human rights record is going down.”