Out in the World: Ugandan LGBTQ umbrella group ordered to cease operations

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday August 11, 2022
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Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, checks his phone in his office in Kampala. Photo: Courtesy Civil Rights Defenders
Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, checks his phone in his office in Kampala. Photo: Courtesy Civil Rights Defenders

Ugandan authorities denied registration of Uganda's leading LGBTQ rights organization last week, calling it an "illegal entity."

In an August 3 letter, the National Bureau for Non-Governmental Organizations, which oversees civil society organizations, informed Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, that the organization was no longer legally registered. Ugandan authorities ordered SMUG to cease operations immediately.

SMUG is a coalition of LGBTQ organizations in Uganda.

Due to ongoing harassment, Mugisha attempted to register SMUG as an "association" rather than as an NGO, he said. But the bureau upheld its 2016 ruling stating SMUG's name was "undesirable and un-registrable" under Section 145 of the 1950 Penal Code Act, which criminalizes homosexuality in the East African country.

A judge agreed. Mugisha told the Associated Press that SMUG is awaiting a judgment on its appeal to a higher court.

Last year, the bureau denied registering dozens of civil society organizations, including pro-democracy organizations, reported the BBC.

Homosexuality is illegal in Uganda, according to Human Dignity Trust. Individuals convicted under the country's 1950 penal code, which retained the British colonial era anti-sodomy law, can be sentenced to seven years to life imprisonment, depending on the nature of the crime. The law applies to both men and women.

The BBC reported official police data shows that 194 people were charged with the offense between 2017 and 2020, including 25 who went on to be convicted.

Gender identity is not illegal, but transgender and gender-variant people face persecution regularly, advocates said.

Mugisha called the suspension "a clear witch-hunt rooted in systemic homophobia," in a SMUG statement tweeted on August 5. He stated that the bureau's action was a "clear indicator that the government of Uganda and its agencies are adamant and treating Ugandan gender and sexual minorities as second-class citizens."

"This means that the life-saving work we do is on hold. We can't protect and support vulnerable LGBT people," he stated. "The background, of course, is homophobia and transphobia."

SMUG has been a dominant force fighting against homophobia and anti-gay bills in the East African nation for nearly 20 years.

The organization battled the country's Anti-Homosexuality Act from 2009 to its defeat in 2014. SMUG also took the law's architect, American anti-gay pastor Scott Lively, to court in the U.S. for international crimes against human rights. Federal Judge Michael Ponsor of the U.S. District Court in Springfield, Massachusetts found that Lively violated SMUG's rights in 2017.

However, Ponsor was forced to dismiss the case due to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell, which limited the extraterritorial reach of the Alien Tort Statute. SMUG brought its claim against Lively under the statute before the Supreme Court's ruling, reported the Center for Constitutional Rights.

In 2010, SMUG successfully petitioned a Ugandan judge to order Red Pepper, a local newspaper, to stop publishing the names and photographs of suspected gay Ugandans under the headline, "Hang them," after gay Ugandan activist David Kato was murdered, reported the BBC.

Since 2014, Ugandan lawmakers have successfully passed anti-gay laws that targeted HIV/AIDS organizations and passed last year's Sexual Offenses Bill 2021. Widespread state-sanctioned crackdowns, from LGBTQ nightclubs to events such as Uganda Pride, have increased during the last eight years.

SMUG continues to publicly criticize anti-LGBTQ politicians' anti-gay speeches, especially during the run-up to last year's national elections.

"The politicians are using the LGBT community as a scapegoat to gain support and win votes and it is fueling homophobia," Mugisha told Reuters.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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