Out in the World: Uganda's highest court starts hearing on anti-LGBTQ law

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday December 20, 2023
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Uganda's highest court accepted written submissions December 18 from both sides in a challenge to President Yoweri Museveni's Anti-Homosexuality Act. Photo: Courtesy Anglican Ink
Uganda's highest court accepted written submissions December 18 from both sides in a challenge to President Yoweri Museveni's Anti-Homosexuality Act. Photo: Courtesy Anglican Ink

Landmark hearings challenging the constitutionality of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act began at the East African country's Constitutional Court December 18.

President Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act into law in May. The law punishes mostly gay and bisexual men. One of the charges for alleged "aggravated homosexuality" in the harsh law carries the death penalty. Supporters of LGBTQ people in Uganda face 20 years in prison.

The panel of five judges led by Uganda's Deputy Chief Justice Richard Buteera received written submissions both from opponents and supporters of the law Monday. The justices' move "surprised many," reported Erasing 76 Crimes.

The media outlet reported the court's decision to receive written submissions was possibly to "avoid the theatrical intention of some of the people admitted into the process whose only objective appeared to be to use the court as a platform to raise money and profile."

Buteera told the petitioners during the brief hearing they would be notified when the ruling is ready, reported Reuters.

Petitioners calling for the law to be overturned include a coalition of LGBTQ and human rights activists; two law professors from Makerere University in Kampala, the country's capital; and two legislators from Museveni's National Resistance Movement party, reported Al Jazeera.

Convening for Equality, a coalition of LGBTQ organizations fighting the anti-LGBTQ law, pointed out that the act added new laws, such as "aggravated homosexuality," to Uganda's Penal Code, which already had a law that criminalized homosexuality. The Bay Area Reporter previously reported that Uganda retained the British-era colonial law when it gained its independence and joined the Commonwealth in 1962. No one has been convicted of consensual same-sex relations since the year the law was enacted, reported the Wall Street Journal. However, it has been widely reported that LGBTQ Ugandans are regularly discriminated against, harassed, and experienced violence, including being killed.

The first Anti-Homosexuality Act was introduced in 2009 as the so-called Kill the Gays bill but was watered down to the "Jail the Gays" bill and signed by Museveni in 2014 after years of global outcry.

That version was struck down by the court later in 2014 based on technicalities, as the B.A.R. reported at the time.

Convening For Equality stated in a December 17 news release the new law violates substantive rights to equality, dignity, privacy, freedom of speech, association, and health as well as freedom from discrimination in the country's constitution and international treaties. Additionally, it argued that the parliamentary process lacked adequate public participation and other procedural issues. Public participation is required by Uganda's Constitution.

Activists documented reported incidents of LGBTQ people being tortured, beaten, arrested, as well as experiencing physical, sexual, and psychological violence, including forced anal exams at the orders of police. Evictions and blackmail, along with loss of employment, and health service disruptions, were also reported, according to the release.

Since the law went into effect in May, activists recorded and responded to 41 cases of arrests involving 58 persons. Among those cases, five were formally charged before the court. Two of the individuals were charged with "acts of homosexuality," one individual was charged with "promotion of homosexuality," and two individuals were charged with "aggravated homosexuality." Activists also reported that they documented 21 forced anal examinations.

The court also allowed UNAIDS' amicus brief presenting how the law harms Uganda's ability to effectively fight HIV with evidence-based, well-established best public health practices, according to the CFE release.

Uganda's government is defending the law, claiming that it reflects traditional family beliefs in line with the conservative and highly religious East African country's values.

Reuters reported that the court granted co-defendant status to Uganda's Attorney General Jackson Kafuuzi and an unidentified Christian pastor. The court also admitted Ugandan pastors Stephen Langa and Martin Ssempa to be respondents.

Ugandan LGBTQ activists pointed out in the release that Uganda's Equal Opportunities Commission tribunal found Ssempa guilty of discriminating against and stigmatizing people living with HIV/AIDS, reported NTVUganda. The tribunal banned Ssempa from making future statements on social media.

CFE noted two civil society groups and four international pharmaceutical corporations also petitioned to file amicus briefs. The justices denied their briefs last week. The coalition claimed the two civil society groups have ties to international hate groups, according to the release.

CNN reported organizations like Family Watch International and its founder, Sharon Slater, had significant influence at an anti-LGBTQ conference held in April and the wording of the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023.

Slater has repeatedly denied connection to Uganda's and other African countries' anti-LGBTQ bills, according to the media outlet.

Nicholas Opiyo, the petitioners' lawyer, told reporters after the hearing, "We hope the court will take the opportunity to address the question in the room, whether the Ugandan constitution protects every single member of our society irrespective of their sexual orientation," reported Reuters.

"Our evidence includes a lot of chilling testimonies by victims of this law showing how it has affected their lives," he added.

Sexual Minorities Uganda Executive Director Frank Mugisha told reporters that he believes the case is strong and they will win. LGBTQ Ugandans' livelihoods "hang on the outcome of this case," he said.

Ugandan authorities stripped SMUG of its legal registration last year, the B.A.R. previously reported.

Since the law was enacted last spring there has been a spike in Ugandans fleeing the country seeking safety, LGBTQ Ugandan activists have repeatedly told reporters unsure of exactly how many have left the country. Some international LGBTQ organizations, such as North American-based Rainbow Railroad, have ramped up to help resettle LGBTQ people fleeing persecution from Afghanistan to Uganda, with the U.S.'s help — similar to what the organization did in Canada — launching its Welcome Corps program, the B.A.R. previously reported.

Rainbow Railroad announced December 14 the first resettlement of a queer refugee from El Salvador in Washington, D.C. as a part of the program. Queer refugees in the program are welcomed by a community of care helping them assimilate into their new homes. They receive affordable housing, educational and employment opportunities, and other assistance.

The United Nations, the World Bank, President Joe Biden, and other world leaders joined LGBTQ and human rights advocates in condemning Uganda's law. The World Bank and the Biden administration placed sanctions on billions of dollars of funding allocated for the country earlier this year. The Biden administration also issued visa restrictions for officials linked to the law in June and earlier this month.

A date for the decision was not announced. LGBTQ activists anticipate the court will announce its decision within the final week and a half of 2023.

More than 30 countries in Africa criminalize LGBTQ people. Activists have been watching surrounding Eastern African nations, such as Kenya and Tanzania where homosexuality is currently illegal, which are threatening to create a block of countries to severely limit LGBTQ rights.

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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