The Constitutional Court of Uganda has begun hearing the first challenge to a draconian anti-gay law that has triggered criticism from the United Nations and led to United States visa restrictions on government officials.
“We agreed to proceed with written submissions as opposed to oral submissions,” Nicholas Opiyo, the lawyer representing the petitioners, told the court in Kampala on Monday.
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“Court shall give judgement on notice,” Uganda’s Deputy Chief Justice Richard Buteera, who is heading the panel of five judges at the Constitutional Court, said during the hearing.
No date has been set for the ruling.
The East African nation adopted one of the world’s harshest laws against homosexuality in May, prompting an uproar by rights advocates and Western powers, with US President Joe Biden threatening to cut aid and investment to Kampala.
But President Yoweri Museveni’s government has struck a defiant tone, with officials accusing the West of trying to pressure Africa into accepting homosexuality.
The petitioners calling for the law to be overturned include several human rights activists, two law professors from Makerere University in Kampala, and two legislators from Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party.
Clash of values
Homosexuality had been illegal in the conservative and highly religious East African country, and observers said homosexuals faced ostracism and harassment by security forces.
In 2014, international donors slashed aid to Uganda after Museveni approved a bill that sought to impose life imprisonment for homosexual relations, which was later overturned.
The latest legislation contains provisions making “aggravated homosexuality” a capital offence and imposes penalties for consensual same-sex relations of up to life in prison.
It enjoys broad support in the country, with Ugandan State Minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Okello Oryem saying the West was seeking “to coerce us into accepting same-sex relationships using aid and loans”.
But the law has also attracted widespread condemnation, especially from the international community. The US, the European Union, and UN chief Antonio Guterres have slammed the legislation, warning that foreign aid and investment for Uganda could be jeopardised unless the law is repealed.
Earlier this month, Washington imposed visa bans on unnamed officials deemed responsible for “undermining the democratic process” in Uganda and abusing human rights, including those of the LGBTQ community.
The US has also announced plans to remove the country from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade pact from January 2024.
The World Bank announced in August it was suspending new loans to Uganda over the law, which “fundamentally contradicts” the values espoused by the US-based lender.