Ugandan prosecutors have charged a 20-year-old man with “aggravated homosexuality” – a crime punishable by death – in one of the country’s first applications for provisions included in one of the world’s toughest anti-gay laws.
Same-sex acts have long been considered illegal under Uganda’s penal code, but a law enacted this year introduced much harsher penalties and vastly expanded the range of offenses observed. Its passage drew condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations, with the Biden administration calling it “one of the most extreme” anti-gay measures in the world.
The measure, signed in May, called for life in prison for anyone engaging in gay sex and allowed the death penalty for what it called “aggravated homosexuality.” This category included same-sex relationships with disabled people, which were defined very broadly.
Prosecutors this month used the death penalty measure to charge a 20-year-old man with having sexual intercourse with a 41-year-old man with disabilities in the eastern Uganda town of Soroti, said Jacquelyn Okui, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Justice. Director of the Public Prosecution Service. (A separate case against another man, filed last month, involved a minor, Ms Okui said.)
In Uganda, a conservative, predominantly Christian country, many religious leaders and politicians have portrayed same-sex relationships as a Western import. “Africans are used to accepting this nonsense from the Western world, and homosexuality is on the agenda,” James Nsaba Buturo, former minister of ethics and integrity in the Ugandan government, said in March.
Anti-gay behavior took a particularly serious turn in Uganda over the past year, with authorities removing rainbow colors from a park and parents storming into a school thinking a gay person was teaching there.
Justine Balya, director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, said the new law, and the draconian punishments it spelled out, had intimidated homosexual Ugandans.
Her organization, which represents the 20-year-old, has reported that overall violence and abuse against LGBTQ people has increased since the law was passed: Fifty-three people have been evicted from rented accommodation for reasons related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. 47 individuals have experienced violence or threats of violence and 17 have been arrested on various charges related to sexuality or gender identity.
Frank Mugisha, a prominent gay rights activist in Uganda, said many others feared losing their jobs or were afraid to visit public places for fear of being attacked or arrested. Some began to flee the country even earlier, when the law made its way through parliament.
“It has been a brutal three months for the community in Uganda,” said Ms Balya, who argued that the law was unconstitutional.
Uganda has not had an execution in 20 years, Ms Balya said – the death penalty usually ends in life imprisonment – but advocates say the harsh legal environment has put LGBTQ people in even greater danger.
“People are panicking,” Mr Mugisha said, adding that many gay or lesbian Ugandans feared they could be arrested at any time and he was concerned about an increase in blackmail as a result.
“This law creates a witch hunt,” he said.
Uganda’s anti-gay efforts received support from local Christian and Muslim groups, along with the financial and logistical support of conservative evangelical groups in the United States. Politicians stressed that homosexuality undermines Ugandan stability and puts children at risk.
Even before the latest law, Ugandan authorities stopped people suspected of being gay on pretexts, according to rights groups. As early as 2009, a Ugandan politician introduced a bill threatening to hang homosexuals. Western countries urged Uganda to end the crackdown and threatened to cut off aid to the country.
But the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed the 2023 law into law in May.
A handful of countries around the world have already imposed the death penalty for gay sex, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and same-sex behavior is a crime in more than 60 countries, especially in Africa and Asia, according to a study by Human Rights Watch.
The Ugandan move comes at a time when other African countries are experiencing the emergence of similar anti-gay policies and behaviour.
A broad anti-LGBTQ bill is circulating through Ghana’s parliament, and a legislator in Kenya is campaigning for a bill to increase penalties for same-sex sexual acts.
Mr. Mugisha, the gay rights activist, said the persecutions in Uganda could push these countries to pass the laws.
“They will see that the law works,” he said. “They will want to do the same.”