March 11, 2014 | by Michael K. Lavers
Uganda anti-gay law challenged in court

Uganda, gay news, Washington Blade

Ugandan human rights advocates on Tuesday petitioned the Ugandan Constitutional Court to block an anti-gay law the country’s president signed last month. (Photo courtesy of Ellen Sturtz)

A coalition of Ugandan human rights organizations and activists on Tuesday challenged a law that imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts.

Ugandan LGBT rights advocates Frank Mugisha, Julian Pepe Onziema and Jacqueline Kasha Nabagesera are among those who signed onto the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law’s challenge of the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill that President Yoweri Museveni signed into law on Feb. 24.

They argue in their petition to the Ugandan Constitutional Court that the statute violates the right to equality and privacy outlined in the country’s constitution. The advocates said the anti-gay law also discriminates against people with HIV and disabilities and imposes a “disproportionate punishment for the offense (of homosexuality) in contravention of the right to equality and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.”

The activists also contend Ugandan parliamentarians approved the measure late last year without the necessary quorum.

“The spirit of the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014, by promoting and encouraging homophobia, amounts to institutionalized promotion of a culture of hatred and constitutes a contravention of the right to dignity,” reads the petition. “The Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014, by encouraging homophobia and stigmatization, is in contravention of the duty of the government to respect, protect and promote the rights and freedoms of persons likely to be affected by the act.”

The activists’ petition asks the court to block enforcement of the law and prevent Ugandan media outlets and websites from publishing the names and pictures of those who are open about their sexual orientation or suspected of being gay.

Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which honored Mugisha in 2012 and whose president, Kerry Kennedy, discussed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill with Museveni in January, welcomed the petition to the Ugandan Constitutional Court.

“The Anti-Homosexuality Law clearly violates a host of constitutionally protected rights in Uganda, not to mention international human rights standards pertaining to nondiscrimination, the right to privacy, and freedom of expression,” Smith told the Blade on Tuesday. “These rights belong to every Ugandan citizen, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and the government has a duty to not only protect these rights, but to both promote and advance them as well. Today’s constitutional challenge is therefore a significant step forward in the struggle for the respect of basic human rights for all Ugandans.”

The Obama administration announced after Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law that it has begun reviewing its relationship with Uganda. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who met with Museveni in January during a trip to the East African country with other members of Congress, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay are among those who also criticized the measure.

“I certainly disagree with the controversial legislation that Uganda may enact in the coming days,” Inhofe told the Washington Blade before Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

Ugandan LGBT rights advocates and their supporters maintain U.S. evangelicals exploited homophobic attitudes in the East African country and encouraged lawmakers to approve the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. A federal judge in Massachusetts last August ruled a lawsuit the Center for Constitutional Rights filed against Scott Lively on behalf of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a Ugandan LGBT advocacy group of which Mugisha is executive director, can proceed.

Lively described the law as “overly harsh on its face,” but “typical of African criminal law across the country” to the Blade during a press conference last month at the National Press Club in downtown Washington.

“Poor countries with limited criminal justice systems tend to rely on the harshness of the letter of the law to be a deterrent to criminals,” said Lively. “In practice, the sentencing is usually pretty lenient. Kenya, for example, has the death penalty for burglary, but burglars are definitely not being executed there.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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