Ugandan government shuts down vital LGBTQ+ rights group amid chilling ‘witch hunt’

People walk underneath a Pride flag

Government officials in Uganda havee shut down a leading LGBTQ+ rights group, claiming it was operating illegally.

Since 2004, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) has advocated for the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal and queer people are persecuted.

Among its actions, in 2010 it successfully obtained a court order preventing a newspaper from printing details of gay Ugandan men under the headline “Hang them”.

On Saturday (6 August), a government official said that SMUG’s operations had been suspended with immediate effect because it was running without a valid permit, according to Reuters.

Stephen Okello, who oversees the government agency that regulates NGOs (non-governmental organisations), accused SMUG of “operating illegally”.

In response, SMUG has said it attempted to register with the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB) in 2012 but was denied because its name was considered “undesirable”.

The charity said that the USRB’s “refusal to legalise SMUG’s operations that seek to protect LGBTQ people who continue to face major discrimination in Uganda” was a “clear indicator that the government of Uganda and its agencies are adamant and treat Ugandan gender and sexual minorities as second-class citizens”.

SMUG’s director, Frank Mugisha, told the BBC that the move was a “clear witch hunt rooted in systematic homophobia, fuelled by anti-gay and anti-gender movements”.

“The politicians are using the LGBT community as a scapegoat to gain support and win votes, and it is fuelling homophobia,” Mugisha said.

Between 2017 and 2020 police data shows that 194 people were charged with “unnatural offences”. This included 25 who went on to be convicted, according to the BBC.

In the past, Uganda has tried to enforce stricter laws to diminish LGBTQ+ rights even further.

In 2014, parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, locally dubbed “Kill the Gays bill” because it originally made homosexuality punishable by death.

The sentence was lowered to life imprisonment, and the bill was passed in February 2014. In August of that year, it was struck down by the courts on a technicality.

However, there are politicians and leaders who seek to reinstate the law.

Uganda president Kaguta Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986, and is a staunch opposer to LGBTQ+ rights.

In a 2016 interview with CNN, Museveni called gay people “disgusting” and said he would “ignore that (homosexuality)” if there was proof that queer people were “born abnormal”.

SMUG has been trying to protect marginalised sexual identities from.