Out in the World: Tentative date set for court case against Uganda's anti-LGBTQ bill

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday December 13, 2023
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Frank Mugisha is executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda and co-convener of Convening For Equality. Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP File<br>
Frank Mugisha is executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda and co-convener of Convening For Equality. Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP File

A trial date for Uganda's anti-LGBTQ law has been tentatively set for December 18 by the country's Constitutional Court in Kampala.

LGBTQ activists and allies, including Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda, and academics, journalists, and religious leaders are challenging the law, which has been dubbed "the world's most draconian anti-LGBTQ law," in Uganda's highest court.

The Anti-Homosexuality Law 2023 criminalizes people suspected of being LGBTQ with 10-year prison sentences for attempting to engage in gay sex and up to 14 years in prison for multiple attempts if convicted. LGBTQ people can be sentenced to death for having sex with children, are HIV-positive, and are people from other vulnerable communities. Promoting homosexuality can get a person up to 20 years in prison. Those who provide spaces for LGBTQ people to gather or who do not report suspected LGBTQ people can also find themselves in trouble with the law and face long prison terms.

The court consolidated four separate petitions and 11 other related applications filed with the court and agreed upon earlier this year, reported Mamba Online.

Petitioners claimed that the legislation was rushed through parliament without adequate public consultation, especially with the LGBTQ community, according to Mamba.

"This unconstitutional law is being used to attempt to distract us from everyday priorities such as the fight against corruption, failing health care systems, unemployment, and the unbearably high cost of living," Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda and Convening for Equality co-convener, stated in a CFE release. "It must be overturned."

SMUG was stripped of its legal ability to organize in 2022, the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

LGBTQ Ugandan activists and allies are challenging the law based on its alleged violation of Uganda's constitution, which guarantees freedom from discrimination; the right to privacy; the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief; and international conventions signed by Ugandan officials, reported Human Rights Watch.

At the same time, Uganda's National Council for Science and Technology began enforcing its October 27 order for researchers to report any study participants suspected of violating Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023, reported 76 Crimes.


Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the bill in May after returning it to the country's parliament a couple of times for revisions, the B.A.R. previously reported. He also hosted a two-day conference calling on African countries to save Africa from homosexuality that was attended by some United States anti-LGBTQ conservatives, the B.A.R. reported.

The anti-homosexuality law was first introduced in Uganda's parliament in 2009. At the time, it was dubbed the "Kill the Gays" bill because it included the death penalty. In 2014, Museveni signed into law a watered-down version of the bill dubbed the "Jail the Gays" bill, which sentenced LGBTQ people to life imprisonment. The Constitutional Court of Uganda struck down a different version of the Anti-Homosexuality Act on a technicality later that same year when it was signed into law.

Homosexuality is already criminalized in the former British colony. The East African country kept the colonial-era law criminalizing homosexuality when Uganda gained its independence and joined the Commonwealth in 1962. The Wall Street Journal reported that no one has been convicted of consensual same-sex relations since 1962. However, it has been widely reported that LGBTQ Ugandans are regularly discriminated against, harassed, and experience violence, including being killed.

Uptick in violence

The Strategic Response Team, a safety and protection committee of Uganda's Convening For Equality, documented 306 rights violations based on victims' sexual orientation and gender identity committed by state and non-state actors between January 1 and August 31, according to a recent report from the coalition. Ugandan authorities have not addressed the issue, according to LGBTQ activists.

The report also documented 180 evictions from peoples' homes and 176 incidents of torture, cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, including 18 reported forced anal exams in police custody.

"Surviving a forced anal examination at police is something that lives with you forever," one 26-year-old unnamed cisgender woman survivor told researchers in the report, "because of the way it is done, inviting other people to watch as they carry out the examination."

According to the report, she is facing charges — three counts of homosexuality and one count of trafficking in persons.

The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, which provides legal assistance for marginalized groups, said it had handled 83 cases in October involving people targeted for their sexual orientation, up from 68 cases in September, reported The Guardian.

Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa's 54 countries, reported the Associated Press.

However, other African countries, such as Angola, Botswana, South Africa, and Mauritius, have done away with criminalizing consensual same-sex relationships on the grounds of human rights, reported Human Rights Watch.

"This law serves no legitimate purpose. It is a blatant attack on basic rights enshrined in both our Constitution and international human rights law, further erodes our democracy and obstructs access to essential health services," said Richard Lusimbo of Uganda Key Populations Consortium and a CFE co-convener, in a December 11 release from the coalition of LGBTQ and ally activists in Uganda. "All eyes should now be on Uganda's Constitutional Court to nullify it without delay."

Global condemnation

Passage and the immediate enactment of the law brought global condemnation and sanctions against Uganda and an increase in state and vigilante attacks against LGBTQ and people suspected of being queer or transgender in an already volatile environment, according to a report by CFE. In June, President Joe Biden condemned the law and ordered his administration to audit, assess, and advise on the impact of the law on U.S. funding and programs in Uganda. By the end of the month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued sanctions against some Ugandan authorities tied to the bill, including Ugandan Parliament Speaker Anita Annet. In August, the World Bank suspended billions of dollars in future funding for Uganda.

Last week, Biden's administration announced more restrictions and sanctions on Uganda, citing the country's human rights abuses specifically against LGBTQ Ugandans. Blinken announced additional visa restrictions for Ugandan authorities December 4. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced more sanctions against Uganda December 8.

"Our commitment to upholding and defending human rights is sacrosanct," Yellen said in a December 4 announcement sanctioning 13 targets for conflict-related sexual violence. "Abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms — wherever they occur in the world — strike at the heart of our shared humanity and our collective conscience."

Among the countries and individuals sanctioned was Johnson Byabashaija (also spelled Byabashaija), the commissioner general of the Uganda Prisons Service, for engaging in torture and other serious human rights abuses against UPS prisoners.

Yellen stated that UPS prisoners reported "being tortured and beaten by UPS staff and by fellow prisoners at the direction of UPS staff" since 2005 when Byabashaija took the role, in the release.

"Members of vulnerable groups, including government critics and members of Uganda's LGBTQI+ community, have been beaten and held without access to legal counsel," she continued. Yellen cited a 2020 case where "the UPS denied a group of LGBTQI+ persons access to their lawyers and members of the group reportedly endured physical abuse, including a forced anal examination and scalding," according to the release.

Byabashaija's property in the U.S. is subject to seizure, and he and his family will not be able to travel to the U.S., according to the announcement.

The U.S. Treasury Department, the Council for Global Equality, and CFE noted this is the first time the U.S. publicly sanctioned Uganda for its abuses of LGBTQ people. The Council for Global Equality noted it is the second time the Treasury sanctioned a foreign official for abuses against LGBTQ people. The first time was against Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for the direction of detainment and torture of LGBTQ people in Chechnya as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Museveni and others remain defiant against the restrictions and sanctions.

The Guardian reported Museveni told attendees at end-of-year national thanksgiving prayers held at State House December 8 not to "be intimidated" and to "pray for those" who do not want to "respect our sovereignty."

"We have the capacity. We don't lack anything. The economy is growing so we shall be able to sustain ourselves," he said.

On December 11, medical researchers and donors pushed back against the National Council for Science and Technology's enforcement of its order to report suspicious violators of the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023. Medical researchers claim it "puts the integrity of research and safety of participants at risk." Donors argue it "could compromise their activities in the country."

An unidentified spokesperson for UNAID told 76 Crimes the directive "is not compatible with USAID, nor any U.S. government policies related to safeguarding vulnerable research participants."

The spokesperson confirmed that HIV/AIDS research in Uganda has been under review by the U.S. government since the Anti-Homosexuality Act came into force. U.S. officials have reminded researchers of their obligation to the "safeguarding requirements" in place under U.S.-sponsored research.

The U.S. can withdraw funding if its confidentiality safeguards are not met, the spokesperson added.

This could take Uganda off track to meet its 2030 goal to end AIDS as a public health threat. Uganda was on pace to do so but, right after the law was passed, representatives from UNAIDS, PEPFAR, and the Global Fund expressed they were "deeply concerned about the harmful impact" of the law.

"LGBTQ+ Ugandans must be free from the discrimination and inequality," stated Clare Byarugaba of Chapter Four Uganda and a CFE co-convener. "State sponsored homophobia and transphobia have no place in our democracy. This nightmare must end with nullification."

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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