Gay Ugandans hail ruling on homosexuality

Constitutional court nullifies law that prescribes life sentence for people found guilty of homosexual acts.

President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-gay law in February amid condemnation from rights groups [EPA]
Kampala, Uganda  A constitutional court ruling that nullified the anti-homosexuality law on August 1 has brought some relief to homosexuals but for some, like ‘Bad Black’, homophobia still runs deep in this East African nation.

“I am happy about the ruling, it means that legally I am now protected from people who could have used it as a pretext to target me,” said Black, a transgender woman, after the court made the ruling. “But the majority of people out there are still hostile to us.”

Judges ruled that the law is null and void because parliament passed it without a quorum, the two-thirds majority required in the house in order to pass a bill.

“The act has ceased to be law,” said Nicholas Opiyo, one of the lawyers representing a group of 10 prominent Ugandans who challenged the constitutionality of the law, which was enacted in February amid condemnation by rights groups and western nations.

It may be too early for gay Ugandans to celebrate as homosexual acts remain illegal under the Penal Code Act, in force since colonial days.

The High Court last month ruled against homosexuals in a case against Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo, with the judge saying that the minister, who in 2012 stormed and closed a meeting for homosexuals, could not have infringed upon their rights since they were involved in promoting illegal acts by distributing same-sex literature.

Life sentence 

Under the nullified law, those charged with aggravated homosexuality faced a life sentence, while those found guilty of promoting homosexuality would get a five-year sentence. The law also prescribed a seven-year sentence for those aiding and abetting homosexuality – punishments rights activists and homosexuals said were harsh.

As LGBT activists celebrated the ruling, supporters of the law – led by religious leaders – could not hide their disappointment.

Pastor Martin Sempa, who has previously led rallies condemning homosexuality, described the ruling as a legal travesty. 

Homosexuality is not a priority for the government as they make it seem. That, I believe, is one of the main reasons people like me have not been arrested under the law.

by - Pepe Julian Onziema, one of Uganda's most prominent gay activists

“Is there a possibility that the president travelling to Washington this week could be the reason … this case was hurried?” Sempa wondered, referring to the US-Africa summit, which opened on August 4. “We want to ask the parliament to investigate the independence of the judiciary.”

Another anti-gay activist, Pastor George Okudi, also questioned the speed with which the case was handled.

“Parliament must come out strongly and protect our people,” Okudi told Al Jazeera. “This law must be put [back] in place.”

Proponents of the law say the petition was disposed of in three days to ease pressure on Museveni, who will meet with US officials during the summit. There are over 100 petitions before the Constitutional Court, most of which came before the petition against the anti-homosexuality law.

The ruling appears to have disappointed many Ugandans, most of whom think homosexuality is a western “vice”. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 96 percent of people surveyed last year said Uganda should not accept homosexuality. 

President Yoweri Museveni, who had initially dubbed the law fascist, turned around and signed it, sparking speculation that the move was intended to boost his chances for re-election in the 2016 presidential election.

Just after the ruling, David Bahati, the legislator who initiated the law, said the attorney general would petition the Supreme Court over the ruling.

But Museveni said the fate of the law would be decided by the ruling party’s caucus – a body that brings together legislators belonging to the NRM.

“Homosexuality is not a priority for the government as they make it seem,” Pepe Julian Onziema, one of Uganda’s most prominent gay activists, told Al Jazeera before the court ruling.

“That, I believe, is one of the main reasons people like me have not been arrested under the law.”

Donor pressure 

While Museveni had cautioned “friends from the West” that they would lose if they made the law an issue, his government soon started to feel the pressure from donors, with the US and Scandinavian countries suspending aid. 

In a July 7 statement, the government noted that donors misinterpreted the law as intended to punish and discriminate against people of a “homosexual orientation”.

That statement came on the heels of US-imposed sanctions, including a reallocation of some assistance for the health ministry to NGO projects.

Decisions by donors like the US and the World Bank to lift suspension of aid hinged upon what the government would do with the law.

In all these cases, people's rights have been violated. Police have subjected people to anal examinations.

by - Jeff Ogwaro, gay activist and the coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law

However, even before the court made its ruling public, donors – including the World Bank which suspended aid over the law –  approved the government’s performance as “sufficiently satisfactory”, essentially paving the way for more aid. And Sweden, which was the first to cut aid, said last month that it would provide $200m to Uganda.

Okudi described the exchanges between the government and donors over the anti-homosexuality law as a sign that there are people occupying public offices that are determined to “sell Uganda and its destiny like merchandise in a market”.

Away from donor pressure, some officials in the health sector agree with activists that the law had already had adverse effects on members of the LGBT community and threatened other people.

A facility known to offer the best gay-friendly health services had to hide its signpost in order to keep operating after Museveni signed the law.

While still located at the National STD Unit of Uganda’s biggest referral hospital, Mulago, MARPI (Most At Risk Populations Initiative) officials removed its signpost and maintained the name only on its website.

After several trips and countless denials from officials at the facility, one doctor claimed that the signpost was hidden for “security reasons”.

“We removed the signpost because we did not want authorities to start arresting people from here,” the doctor, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media, told Al Jazeera.

The incident at MARPI, funded by the US Center for Disease Control, risked the closure of the facility, which officials said was at the heart of fighting HIV/AIDS in Uganda.

Two other organisations, the AIDS Information Centre and The AIDS Support Organisation, discontinued programmes through which homosexuals were accessing healthcare.

Intrusive physical examinations

Lawyer Opiyo says that these organisations suspended their services because of the law.

Before the law was struck down, Onziema, the gay rights activist, said it had put everyone in danger because people’s definition of a gay person was in appearance, not in the act itself.

“When people see you wearing tight clothes, lip gloss, the conclusion is that you are gay,” Onziema told Al Jazeera. “It is easy for them, from suspicion, to report you or pounce on you.”

Human Rights Watch says it has interviewed 10 victims who have been arrested and suffered harassment under such circumstances.

One of the cases HRW documented involved a Kenyan and a Belgian citizen who were arrested on a tip-off from their home in Ntinda, a Kampala suburb, in the middle of the night on January 27. The two were later released without being charged.

“In all these cases, people’s rights have been violated,” Jeff Ogwaro, a gay activist and the coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, said. “Police have subjected people to anal examinations.”

Source: Al Jazeera