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Activists call on Uganda’s president to veto anti-gay bill

PM questioned whether parliament had quorum to approve measure

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is being urged to veto an anti-gay bill passed Dec 20. Credit: ugandapicks.com

Reaction to the Ugandan parliament's long-anticipated passage of an anti-gay bill has been swift, with activists and human rights groups calling on the country's president to veto the measure that hands down harsher penalties against those who commit "the offense of homosexuality." 

President Yoweri Museveni has 30 days to sign off on the bill.

A report on the Ugandan parliament's website says the bill provides for a 14-year prison term for a first conviction and life imprisonment for the offence of "aggravated homosexuality." It also criminalizes "promotion" of homosexuality, while those who fail to report homosexual activities to the police face prison sentences.

The parliamentary announcement says that the measure seeks to implement legislation that protects the traditional family "by prohibiting any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex; and the promotion or recognition of such sexual relations in public institutions and other places through or with the support of any government entity in Uganda or any other non governmental organization inside or outside the country."

Prior to the bill's passage, Ugandan Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi indicated that he didn't know that it was up for debate, the parliamentary report reveals. Mbabazi, who apparently sought — unsuccessfully — to have debate on the bill deferred, noted that the government was in unspecified "negotiations" over the measure and that a quorum was needed to pass it.

Parliamentary speaker Rebecca Kadaga reportedly ignored the request for a quorum call. Last year, Kadaga, infuriated by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's criticism of her country's human rights record, returned to Uganda and promised to pass the bill as a "Christmas gift" to the people.

But other MPs — Sam Otada and Fox Odoi — expressed their misgivings about the bill, criticizing it as discriminatory and noting that homosexuality was already banned in existing laws, the Dec 20 parliamentary announcement says.

"What two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom should not be the business of this Parliament. It is not right to have the state allowed in the bedrooms of people,” Otada and Odoi said in their Minority Report.

While the death penalty provision in the bill, which first surfaced in 2009, has been dropped, Aster van Kregten, deputy Africa director at Amnesty International, calls the revised legislation "wildly discriminatory" and says it "amounts to a grave assault on human rights and makes a mockery of the Ugandan constitution." She urged Museveni to withhold presidential assent to the measure.

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance also called on Museveni to veto the bill, saying it will have a "disastrous impact" on the country's HIV response. 

"Clauses within the bill mean that the reputation of anyone working with the gay or lesbian population such as medical doctors working on HIV and AIDS and civil society leaders active in the field of sexual and reproductive health could be severely compromised."

The International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) also weighed in, saying it is "extremely disappointed by the adoption of such a draconian law, which represents an attack on human dignity and freedoms." 

IBAHRI director Dr Phillip Tahmindjis added, "The Ugandan Constitution provides for equality, privacy, freedom of speech and freedom from discrimination, all of which is in direct contradiction to the provisions of the new law."

Andre Banks, head of the AllOut campaign group, says Museveni must come out "forcefully" to reject the law.

Long Jones, a member of Sexual Minorities Uganda, told Xtra, "We have yet to come up with a joint statement," adding that everyone "is in shock."

As news of the bill's passage broke, prominent Ugandan gay rights activist Frank Mugisha said via Twitter, "I am officially illegal." He urged his country's president not to sign the bill into law, saying it will initiate a "new era of fear and persecution."

For months, the bill, spearheaded by MP David Bahati, has been making its way up and down the parliamentary order paper, with speculation rife about an imminent vote that never materialized until today, Dec 20. Bahati told Agence France-Presse that he's glad that parliament "voted against evil."

Meanwhile, Nigeria's own anti-gay bill, which reportedly makes it a criminal offence to engage in gay rights advocacy, prohibits gay marriage and prescribes jail time for public demonstrations of same-sex affection, also received its final Senate clearance and awaits the signature of President Goodluck Jonathan.