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Ugandan law criminalizes being LGBTQ amid crackdown on homosexuality

By Niha Masih and Rael Ombuor Washington Post

Uganda passed legislation that compels life imprisonment for being LGBTQ and the death penalty for gay sex with a minor amid a widening crackdown on sexual minorities in the Christian-majority nation in East Africa.

The new bill, which is likely to be challenged in court, prohibits advocacy for LGBTQ rights and mandates people to report the community to law enforcement. Same-sex intercourse is already criminalized in the country and rights group said the latest law expanding restrictions would violate fundamental rights of expression, privacy and nondiscrimination.

“In our country, we will have our morals, we will protect our children,” Musa Ecweru, a Ugandan minister said in Parliament to loud cheers when it passed Tuesday. “We are going to reinforce the law enforcement officers to make sure that homosexuals have no space in Uganda.”

Public figures in Uganda routinely use disparaging language for LGBTQ people and in recent months the government has clamped down on groups advocating for them. LGBTQ people often face arbitrary arrests and mob violence.

The new law greatly expands the existing criminal provisions against homosexuality with sweeping restrictions. Leasing to LGBTQ people or groups championing their rights is a criminal act punishable for up to 10 years. These steps, rights groups say, will give law enforcement broad powers to interfere in people’s lives and effectively shut down groups that work for the LGBTQ community.

The majority of the lawmakers supported the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, local media reported. Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, one of the few lawmakers who opposed the bill, called it repugnant and retrogressive. “The bill targets a minority,” he said, adding, that it infringes on several articles of the constitution.

The law needs the assent of President Yoweri Museveni, the longtime Ugandan leader, before it comes into effect but is likely to run into trouble with Uganda’s Western donors who have previously cut aid over the issue. The country of nearly 50 million people relies on billions of dollars in foreign aid, especially for its health and infrastructure needs. But Museveni, who’s spent more than three decades in power, has not shied from taking on the West on the issue of homosexuality.

Last week, calling homosexual people “deviations from normal,” he told Parliament that Western countries were threatening to impose sanctions on opponents of homosexuality, according to Monitor, a local English-language news website.

“The Western countries should stop wasting the time of humanity by imposing their social practices on us,” Monitor cited him as saying. He has previously called LGBTQ people, “mercenaries” and “prostitutes,” likening homosexuality to a form of “social imperialism.”

Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s son and an army general, also took aim at the West. In a tweet Wednesday after the passage of the bill, he claimed that some foreign companies wanted to leave Uganda over the issue. “We are willing to help them pack their bags and leave our blessed country forever! Uganda is God’s country!” he wrote.

The anti-LGBTQ sentiment is visible in Uganda’s political spaces, churches and social media, activists say. With the passage of the bill, it will get state sanction, said Eric Ndawula, a Kampala-based rights activist.

“The community has lived underground and people are not free to be who they are,” he said adding that this bill is not just a problem for the community” but for the entire human rights fraternity because it also criminalizes their work.”

One young lawyer, who fled to Kenya after being outed by a newspaper in 2016, said the bill meant anyone could be accused and jailed.

“This is the perfect way to take away the enemy of the state, the opposition, anyone against government. This law is danger to both straight and queer people. This is a weapon that can be used against anybody,” said the lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fears for his safety.

After being outed, the lawyer was driven from his home, beaten, stripped naked and forced to march through the market - most hurtfully - with even his own father, a powerful politician, joining in his public humiliation, he said.

This is not the first time the government in Uganda has pushed for extreme legislation against LGBTQ people. Versions of the bill have been around since 2009, and in 2014, Museveni’s government passed a similar law, whose first iteration included the death penalty for HIV-positive people and for engaging in gay sex with a minor. It was ultimately struck down by the court for not following due parliamentary process.

Ugandan politicians often have publicly touted their support for the bill as evidence they are willing to stand up to foreign powers to defend what they say are Ugandan values. But U.S. pastors have also frequently appeared at anti-gay events in the country.

In 2011, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an umbrella group of Ugandan LGBT organizations, sued American preacher Scott Lively for his public speeches in the country. Judge Michael Ponsor in Massachusetts said Lively aided “a vicious and frightening campaign of repression against LGBTI people in Uganda” but in 2017 ruled that he had no jurisdiction as Lively’s actions took place outside of the United States.

At least 67 countries outlaw same-sex relations and in at least seven countries same-sex conduct is punishable by death, according to a previous analysis by Human Rights Watch.