‘People are freaking out’: Ugandan arrested on anti-gay charge punishable by death

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Ugandan prosecutors have lodged charges of “aggravated homosexuality” against a 20-year-old man – a crime punishable by death – in one of the country’s first applications of a provision included in one of the world’s harshest anti-gay laws.

Same-sex acts had long been considered illegal under the country’s penal code, but a law enacted this year introduced far harsher penalties and vastly extended the range of perceived offences. Its passage drew condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations, and the US government called it “one of the most extreme” anti-gay measures in the world.

A participant in a Mr and Miss Pride beauty contest prepares backstage at an undisclosed venue in Kampala, Uganda, in 2015. Gay Ugandans say they are living in fear of being arrested since a stricter law passed this year.Credit: Reuters

The measure, signed into law in May, called for life in prison for anyone who engaged in gay sex and allowed the death penalty for what it labelled “aggravated homosexuality”. That category included same-sex relations with disabled people, who were defined very broadly.

Prosecutors have now used the death penalty provision to charge a 20-year-old man with having sexual intercourse with a 41-year-old man with a disability in the city of Soroti, in Eastern Uganda, according to Jacquelyn Okui, a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution. (A separate case against a different man, lodged last month, involved an underage person, Okui said.)

In the conservative, mostly Christian country, many religious leaders and politicians have painted same-sex relations as a Western import. “Africans are being used to accept this nonsense of the Western world, and homosexuality is on the agenda,” James Nsaba Buturo, a former minister of ethics and integrity, said in March.

A man is seen during the third Annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride celebrations in Entebbe, Uganda, in 2014. Things have since gotten worse for LGBT citizens.Credit: AP

Anti-gay behaviour took a particularly severe turn over the past year, with authorities removing rainbow colours from a park and parents charging into a school because they thought a gay person taught there.

Justine Balya, a director at the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, said the new law, and the draconian punishments it outlines, had intimidated gay Ugandans.

Her organisation, which is representing the 20-year-old, has reported that overall violence and abuse against LGBT people have increased since the law’s passage: 53 people have been evicted from rented property for reasons linked to their sexual orientation or gender identity, 47 have faced 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, said many others feared they would lose their jobs or were afraid to visit public places for fear of being attacked or arrested. Some began fleeing the country earlier, as the law made its way through parliament.

“It has been a brutal three months for the community in Uganda,” said Balya, who argued that the law was unconstitutional.

Activists hold placards during their picket against Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill at the Ugandan High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa, before the law was enacted.Credit: AP

There hasn’t been an execution in about 20 years, Balya said – the death penalty usually winds up as life imprisonment – but advocates say that the harsh legal climate has put LGBT people in even more danger.

“People are freaking out,” Mugisha said, adding that many gay or lesbian Ugandans feared they could be arrested at any time and that he worried about an increase in blackmail as a result.

“This law is creating a witch hunt,” he said.

The anti-gay effort drew support from local Christian and Muslim groups along with the financial and logistical backing of conservative evangelical groups in the United States. Politicians insisted that homosexuality was undermining Ugandan stability and putting children at risk.

Even before the latest law, Ugandan authorities stopped people suspected of being gay on what rights groups said were fabricated pretexts. As early as 2009, a politician introduced a bill that threatened to hang gay people. Western countries exhorted the country to halt the crackdown and threatened to cut aid

But President Yoweri Museveni signed the 2023 law in May.

A handful of countries had already imposed the death penalty for gay sex, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and same-sex conduct is a crime in more than 60 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, according to a survey by Human Rights Watch.

The Ugandan crackdown comes at a time when other African nations are facing the rise of similarly anti-gay policies and behaviour.

A broad anti-LGBT law is moving through Ghana’s parliament, and an MP in Kenya is campaigning for a bill to impose harsher penalties on same-sex sexual acts.

Mugisha said that the prosecutions in Uganda might energise these countries to pass the laws.

“They will see the law works,” he said. “They will want to do the same.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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