Ugandan court strikes down anti-homosexuality law

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Uganda’s Constitutional Court has annulled the controversial anti-homosexuality act which President Yoweri Museveni signed into law in February.

The legislation increased the punishment for homosexuality, which was already illegal in the country. Acts of “aggravated homosexuality” were punishable by up to life  in prison, though an earlier draft initially proposed the death penalty, while the promotion of homosexuality was also outlawed. Lesbians, who had previously escaped prosecution, were included in the law and subject to the same punishment as gay men.

Opponents of the law argued before court that the passing of the bill violated normal parliamentary procedure. The legislation was passed without quorum — which mandates that there be at least one-third of parliamentary members present for a vote on a piece of legislation. Despite strong support for the law from both the government and Ugandan society, which is intensely conservative, the judge agreed with the technicality and declared the law “null and void.”

AFP quotes Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda as saying, “The retrogressive anti-homosexuality act of Uganda has been struck down by the constitutional court – it’s now dead as a door nail.” According to the BBC, government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo stated that the government was still waiting to hear from the Attorney General before considering a challenge in the country’s Supreme Court.

Human Rights Campaign’s Director of Global Engagement Ty Cobb issued a statement, commending, “the courageous lawyers, advocates, and allies who stood up for the human rights of LGBT Ugandans.” He cautioned that “Uganda’s Parliament could seek to once again further enshrine anti-LGBT bigotry into its nation’s law,” adding, “These past several months have shown that enacting such legislation can have very real and even violent consequences for LGBT people.”

Shawn Gaylord, Counsel for Human Rights First, hopes the ruling “will serve as an example for other countries in Africa and worldwide.” Echoing the HRC, he added “We are deeply impressed with the hard work and dedication of our Ugandan colleagues who put their own lives at risk to seek justice for all.” Gaylord added that gay Ugandan’s still face the wrath of the country’s original anti-homosexuality laws. “Other discriminatory laws remain in place,” he stated, “namely the country’s anti-sodomy laws under which gay men can still face prosecution for up to seven years for consensual relations.”

The focus for the government now will be to persuade foreign countries to remove sanctions put in place following the passing of the anti-homosexuality bill. President Museveni will visit the US next week for the US-Africa Summit, during which he will no doubt request for sanctions in place by the United States to be removed. President Obama, who called the law “an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda”, announced sanctions and cuts to several aid programmes in the country earlier this year following widespread international criticism of Uganda’s law. European nations also cut aid to the country and placed travel restrictions on Ugandan officials. Further condemnation came from business leaders, including Virgin owner Sir Richard Branson who urged other companies to boycott Uganda until the law was repealed. Branson stated that the “witch hunt against the gay community and lifetime sentences means it would be against my conscience to support this country.”

Whether today’s ruling will impact the sanctions in place against Uganda remains to be seen, though the government’s spokesperson was keen to remind Western donors that the court’s decision was a sign that democracy is functioning well in the country. For LGBT citizens in Uganda, they now must wait to see whether the government challenges the ruling in court. Should they choose not to, the court ruled on a matter of procedure — rather than declaring the law itself to be invalid — which allows Uganda’s parliament to reintroduce the bill with the appropriate number of MPs and pass it again. The only silver lining here is that any reintroduction of the bill would take time, so gay Ugandans will have some breathing space before the government can potentially subject them to further restrictions.

Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's assistant editor and covers cars, technology, and gaming. He is usually found with a controller in one hand and a smartphone in the other, and can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.

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