[NOTE: Given the heavy U.S.-based support for this draconian law, it behooves allies of LGBTQ folks to speak out about this, and keep pressure on U.S. and Uganda officials to oppose it.]
Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has refused to sign into law a controversial anti-LGBTQ+ bill that imposes the death penalty for homosexuality, requesting that it be returned to parliament for reconsideration.
The decision was announced on Thursday after a meeting between the president and ruling party MPs who resolved to return the hardline bill to the national assembly “with proposals for its improvement”.
It was not yet clear whether the proposed changes would make the proposed law even tougher, although a spokesperson said the president had asked lawmakers to consider “the issue of rehabilitation”. “I totally agree with the bill, but my original problem is the psychologically disoriented person,” said Museveni, according to a statement.
Museveni has 30 days within which to either sign the infamous legislation into law, return it to parliament for revisions, or veto it and inform the Speaker of parliament. It may, however, pass into law without the president’s assent if he returns it to parliament twice.
The bill in its current form imposes capital and life-imprisonment sentences for gay sex, up to 14 years for “attempted” homosexuality, and 20 years in jail for “recruitment, promotion and funding” of same-sex “activities”.
An earlier version of the bill prompted widespread international criticism and was later nullified by Uganda’s constitutional court on procedural grounds. In Uganda, a largely conservative Christian east African country, homosexual sex is already punishable by life imprisonment.
The bill, which the UN human rights head, Volker Türk, last month described as “shocking and discriminatory”, was passed almost unanimously by 389 MPs on 21 March.
Museveni has claimed that his government is attempt to resist western efforts to “normalise” what he called “deviations”. “The western countries should stop wasting the time of humanity by trying to impose their practices on other people,” he said.
This week, a group of leading scientists and academics from Africa and across the world urged Museveni to veto the bill, saying that “homosexuality is a normal and natural variation of human sexuality”. Responding to Museveni’s call for a scientific and medical opinion on homosexuality, the authors of the letter wrote: “The science on this subject is crystal clear.”
Prof Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said: “Being gay is natural and normal, wherever it occurs across the world. Sexual orientation knows no borders. Despite the rhetoric, homosexuality is not a pernicious western import.”
“If anything, it’s state-sponsored homophobia that’s un-African and against the principles of ubuntu [humanity toward others], not homosexuality,” she said.
The decision to return the bill to parliament prompted mixed reactions, with human rights campaigners calling for it to be shelved entirely.
“This is the reprieve the LGBTIQ community needed,” Clare Byarugaba, an LGBT advocate in Kampala, said in a tweet.
“If you have never had an abhorrent state-sanctioned hate bill that is a matter of life and death hanging over your head every waking morning, hold your freedom dear. The struggle continues,” she wrote.
But supporters of the bill also welcomed the move. “It’s a good step forward to include in the legislation an amnesty for those giving up sodomy voluntarily,” said pastor Martin Ssempa, one of the main backers of the bill. “And to include in the legislation a road map of rehabilitation including rehabilitation centres. Both amendments are human and legitimate,” he said.
Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, said the “deeply repressive” bill should be dropped. “Instead of persecuting LGBTI people, the Ugandan authorities should protect their rights by aligning their laws with international human rights law and standards,” she said.
“Criminalising consensual same-sex conduct blatantly violates numerous human rights, including the rights to dignity, equality before the law, equal protection by the law, and non-discrimination.”
On 17 April, a court in the eastern town of Jinja denied bail to six young educators working for healthcare organisations after they were arrested and charged with “forming part of a criminal sexual network”. The Uganda police force confirmed that it conducted forced anal exams on the six individuals and tested them for HIV.
More than 110 LGBTQ+ people in Uganda reported incidents including arrests, sexual violence, evictions and public undressing to the advocacy group Sexual Minorities Uganda (Smug) in February alone. Transgender people were disproportionately affected, said the group.