Uganda’s president signs anti-gay legislation with death penalty in some cases

By RODNEY MUHUMUZA (Associated Press)

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Uganda’s president has signed an anti-gay law, supported by many in the East African country but widely condemned by human rights activists and others abroad.

The version of the bill signed by President Yoweri Museveni does not criminalize those who identify as LGBTQ+, a key concern for some human rights campaigners who condemned an earlier draft of the legislation as a blatant attack on human rights.

But the new law still provides for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”, which is defined as cases of sexual relations involving people infected with HIV, as well as with minors and other categories of vulnerable people.

A suspect convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can be jailed for up to 14 years, according to the law.

Parliament Speaker Anita Among said in a statement that the president had “answered the cries of our people” by signing the bill.

“With great humility, I thank my colleagues, the deputies in the Parliament, because they resisted all the pressures of thugs and apocalyptic conspiracy theorists in the interest of our country,” the statement said.

Museveni returned the bill to the national assembly in April, calling for changes to differentiate between identifying as LGBTQ+ and actually engaging in homosexual acts. This angered some lawmakers, including some who feared the president would veto the bill amid international pressure. Lawmakers adopted an amended version of the bill in early May.

LGBTQ+ rights activists say the new legislation is unnecessary in a country where homosexuality has long been illegal under a colonial-era law that criminalizes sexual activity “against the order of nature”. The penalty for this offense is life imprisonment.

The United States has warned of the economic consequences of the legislation described by Amnesty International as “draconian and over-reaching”. In a statement from the White House months later, US President Joe Biden called the new law “a tragic violation of universal human rights – one unworthy of the Ugandan people and one that jeopardizes the prospects for critical economic growth for whole country.”

“I join people around the world – including many in Uganda – in calling for its immediate repeal. No one should live in constant fear for their life or be subjected to violence and discrimination. It’s wrong,” Biden said.

The United Nations Human Rights Office said it was “horrified that the draconian and discriminatory anti-gay bill is now law”, describing the legislation as “a recipe for the systematic violation of the rights” of LGBTQ+ people and others.

In a joint statement, leaders of the UN AIDS program, the US President’s AIDS Emergency Plan and the Global Fund said they were “deeply concerned about the harmful impact” of the legislation on public health and the HIV response.

“Uganda’s progress in its HIV response is now in great jeopardy,” the statement said. “The Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023 will impede health education and outreach that can help stop AIDS as a public health threat.”

This statement noted that “the stigma and discrimination associated with the passage of the Act has already led to reduced access to prevention and treatment services” for LGBTQ+ people.

Rights activists have the option of challenging the legislation in court. Later on Monday, a group of activists and academics filed a petition with the Constitutional Court seeking an injunction against the enforcement of the law.

An anti-gay bill passed in 2014 was later struck down by a panel of judges who cited a lack of quorum in the plenary session that passed that bill. Any legal challenge this time will likely be heard on the merits rather than on technical issues.

Anti-gay sentiment in Uganda has risen in recent weeks amid reports of sodomy in boarding schools, including at a prestigious all-boys school where a parent accused a teacher of abusing his son.

The Church of England’s decision in February to continue banning church weddings for same-sex couples while allowing priests to bless same-sex marriages and civil partnerships has outraged many in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa .

Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries. Some Africans see it as a behavior imported from abroad and not a sexual orientation.

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