Arrests of gay men have begun in Uganda, following a recent statement by President Yoweri Museveni that he would order police to "lock up" homosexuals, reports the San Francisco based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). In the wake of Museveni's statement, IGLHRC's Kamal Fizazi, Regional Program Coordinator for Africa and Southwest Asia, visited Uganda and met with gay men. "Some men have gone into hiding in fear of arrest," Fizazi said.
Museveni was recently quoted in the state-owned newspaper New Vision as saying: "I have told the CID [Criminal Investigations Department] to look for homosexuals, lock them up, and charge them." The statement followed press reports, apparently false, of a marriage ceremony between two gay men in a suburb of Kampala.
According to Fizazi, "Authoritarian leaders like Museveni demonize homosexuality hoping to shore up their political support. This intolerance will spread until it is recognized for what it is--a threat to democracy and fundamental human rights."
IGLHRC has received reliable reports that one individual is being held in Luzeira Prison outside the capital, Kampala. Other reports indicate that at least five others may also now be jailed under Uganda's laws banning sex "against the order of nature." Fizazi is maintaining contact with Ugandan activists and urges those who are concerned to wait before taking actions which, though well intentioned, might have the inadvertent effect of exacerbating matters.
"Any arrest based on sexual orientation is in flagrant disregard of international human rights precedent," said Jaime Balboa, IGLHRC's Director of Public Education. "By mobilizing its police to arrest gay people, Uganda is locating itself well outside the norms of the international human rights community," he continued.
"Ugandan law punishes same-sex love with life imprisonment," said Fizazi. "Under this harsh law, even individuals who elude imprisonment face constant fear, stigmatization, and the threat of extortion by the police," he continued.
IGLHRC's mission is to protect and advance the human rights of all people and communities subject to discrimination or abuse on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status.
UGANDA: BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Recent years have seen a wave of intolerant public statements on homosexuality by African political leaders. 1n 1995, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe banned gay and lesbian participants from an international book fair; he has reiterated his opposition to homosexuality on numerous subsequent occasions, calling gays and lesbians "people without rights" and "worse than dogs and pigs." Politicians in Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia have adopted similar public stances. Following Museveni's statement, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi also declared that he would combat the "scourge" of homosexuality.
Museveni's recent statement is not his first foray into officially-sponsored homophobia. In July 1998, he told reporters, "When I was in America some time ago, I saw a rally of 300,000 homosexuals. If you have a rally of 30 homosexuals here, I would disperse it."
The heavy-handed repression of homosexual behavior has already roused debate within Uganda. After witnessing a 1998 news report on the arrest of a gay man, who was stripped by the police before the cameras to prove he was a man, a commentator in the opposition newspaper The Monitor wrote that Ugandan law should "protect every single person from inhuman and degrading treatment." Such treatment, the commentator declared, "was exactly what the police were doing."
The person arrested in that case has been detained again in the wake of Museveni's latest statement.
Responding to Museveni's and Arap Moi's recent statements, the Monitor declared on October 4 that "The presidents' attacks on homosexuals are not based on any sound evidence."
Homosexuals, a columnist in the paper wrote, "should enjoy the same rights and freedoms as their heterosexual counterparts, including the freedom from harassment by the state and individuals."
However, despite such opposition, the machinery for denying those rights remains in place in Uganda. In addition to the law on acts "against the order of nature," other laws on loitering, "causing a breach of public peace," or being "idle and disorderly" are used to crack down on any public evidence of homosexuality or transgender identity in Uganda.
Paragraph 140 of the Ugandan Penal Code stipulates that "Any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature" is subject to life imprisonment. The law dates back to the penal provisions imposed during the era of British colonialism and was strengthened in 1990 to increase the penalty from 14 years to life.
All these laws can be used against both men and women. It is unclear which laws will be used to charge those arrested.
Published on November 1, 1999 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization