Uganda court upholds anti-gay death penalty bill

Protesters waves placards while joining supporters of the LBTQ community as they stage a protest against a planned lecture by Kenyan academic Patrik Lumumba (not visible) at the University of Cape Town on July 24, 2023. Lumumba, who has been invited to address a keynote speech by the South African opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters, has been contested because of his views on homosexuality and his support for Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill. (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP) (Photo by RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images)

Uganda’s Constitutional Court has upheld the country’s draconian anti-gay bill.

The bill – which carries the death sentence for “aggravated homosexuality” – was being challenged in the court by activists who argued it violates citizens’ constitutional rights to equality and dignity.

“We decline to nullify the anti-homosexuality act 2023 in its entirety, neither will we grant a permanent injunction against its enforcement,” Uganda’s deputy chief justice and head of the court, Richard Buteera, said of the decision.

However, the court did find that certain parts of the law violate citizens’ right to health and that it is “inconsistent with right to health, privacy and freedom of religion”.

Reacting to the news, human rights attorney Nicholas Opiyo said for the court to base “decision on public sentiments, purported cultural values, and unfounded/unsubstantiated allegations of recruitment into homosexuality is strange, to say the least”.

“We disagree with the findings but look forward to receiving their detailed reasoning and consulting on our next steps,” he said.

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Adding: “You come to court expecting it to rise above public bigotry and sentiments. To that extent, it is a letdown, but we will see what next steps can be taken.”

Activist Steven Kabuye, who was nearly stabbed to death in January, said the decision means the LGBTQ+ community in the country has “been pushed further in the darkness” and “the price of freedom to an ordinary LGBTQI+ Ugandan is death”.

Commenting on the decision Outright International executive director Maria Sjödin said: “LGBTQ people in Uganda deserve full protection and equal rights under the law, and the partial invalidation of the law is not enough.

“The Constitutional Court’s ruling, which relegates queer people to second-class citizenship, must not be the last word. It is now incumbent upon Uganda’s parliament to repeal this law.

“The authorities must  engage in a meaningful dialogue with LGBTQ organizations and activists and work towards creating an inclusive society that respects and upholds the rights of all people in Uganda.”

Leanne MacMillan, global director of campaigns and human rights at Stonewall, said: ‘It is deeply troubling that Uganda’s court has upheld horrific anti-LGBTQ+ legislation which denies LGBTQ+ Ugandans basic human rights. We stand in solidarity with those fighting for their rights and dignity in Uganda at a time when the courts have failed them. If we want to live in a world where LGBTQ+ people are free to be themselves, we all need to fight for it now’.

What is Uganda’s anti-gay bill?

Uganda’s anti-gay Bill was given assent by the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, in May 2023 and built on already harsh laws which criminalise gay sex, becoming some of the strictest anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in the world.

Parliament approved an earlier version of the bill in March that had provisions which sought to punish people for merely identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community, but this clause was later removed by lawmakers in May after Museveni returned the bill to parliament for reconsideration. 

In response, human rights groups and LGBTQ+ activists slammed the bill as “vile, deadly legislation” which will do “nothing to improve Uganda or the lives of Ugandans”. 

The United States also said the country intends to cut economic ties with Uganda following the implementation of the anti-homosexuality bill, with president Joe Biden writing that he planned to end economic relations over the “gross violations” of human rights.

Since the legislation was passed, there has been a spike in anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes and abuse in Uganda, according to a report from a committee of the Convening for Equality (CFE) coalition.

The report, as seen by Reuters, 306 rights violations in Uganda based on the victims’ sexual orientation and gender identity between 1 January and 31 August 2023.

Notably, the report stated the list could not be considered exhaustive because of the difficulties LGBTQ+ people face in reporting anti-LGBTQ+ abuse.

This is a breaking news story. More to come.