In Uganda, a controversial new anti-LGBTI law that allows for the death penalty has been postponed for the time being. Unexpectedly, President Yoweri Museveni sent the law back to parliament last night with orders to amend it. It is unclear why the president did this.
Human rights activists in Uganda are somewhat relieved, but also know that this delay does not mean the end of the law.
“There is nothing to celebrate,” says LGBTI rights activist Pepe Onziema. Our lives are still in danger every day. He speaks by phone from a police station in the Ugandan capital Kampala and has stepped outside for the conversation.
He explains that inside two of his friends are being held for questioning. They were blackmailed by someone who accused them of homosexuality, but when she wanted to report it, they were arrested themselves. “This is what I mean when I talk about the fear we feel every day,” Onziema sighs.
Museveni’s statement came late Thursday evening after speaking with MPs from his own party. He returned the law with “suggestions for improvements”. It is not clear what those improvements should look like according to Museveni.
Filmmaker and human rights activist Richard Lusimbo says via Skype that he remains combative. “We continue to talk to our leaders to explain to them that no one should be judged for those they love.”
Homosexuality is already illegal in the East African country due to an old colonial law. It carries a life sentence. The new law would go much further. In some cases, it even allows for the death penalty. The law speaks of ‘serious’ homosexuality if, for example, someone infects another person of the same sex with HIV.
It would even become a criminal offense to speak out openly for LGBTI rights. It carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. In conservative Christian Uganda, there is a lot of support for the government’s tough approach. “If you talk to Ugandans one-on-one about their views, they are often a lot more nuanced,” says Lusimbo, however. According to him, the population is often misinformed.
There is much international criticism of the Ugandan government’s plans. Several scientists and academics, including within Africa, called on Museveni to use his veto power. Only the signature of the president is needed to ratify the law. The law was approved by parliament in March. Then two MPs voted against and 389.
The US has threatened to withdraw financial aid from the country if it goes ahead with tougher legislation. In that case, the EU warns Uganda against sanctions. Onziema doesn’t think Museveni is sensitive to it. “He mainly seems to want to buy political time with the return of the law.”
Onziema is referring to a major corruption scandal that is currently going on in Uganda. Corrugated iron sheets intended for the roofs of houses in the Karamoja region ended up in the hands of high-ranking politicians. Museveni could use the distraction provided by the anti-LGBTI law. Lusimbo also sees a connection. “Unfortunately, we often see that the discussion about LGBTI rights flares up when there are other problems in the government.”
‘Keep on fighting’
Next Tuesday, President Museveni will talk further with the legal committee of the Ugandan parliament about amendments to the law. For Pepe Onziema and Richard Lusimbo, the outcome of those conversations does not matter much, they say. Whatever the outcome, they remain committed to human rights in their country.
“I am already a target, a new law will not change that,” says Onziema. “Although my life is not safe, I will stay in Uganda and continue to fight.”
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