Uganda: Victory for Human Rights

For Immediate Release, December 23, 2008
Media Contact: Hossein Alizadeh, 212-430-6016, halizadeh@iglhrc.org

(New York, December 23, 2008)- In a surprising victory for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, Ugandan Justice Stella Arach yesterday issued a ruling in favor of LGBT activists and human rights defenders Victor Mukasa and Oyo Yvonne in their suit against the Attorney General of Uganda related to an illegal raid on Mukasa’s home. Speaking to a courtroom packed with Ugandan, Kenyan, and Rwandan LGBT activists, the judge cited constitutional violations of the rights to privacy, property and the fundamental rights of women. The ruling is likely to become a landmark case in a country that currently criminalizes homosexuality and has repeatedly made efforts to silence sexual rights activists.

"This is a profound ruling that will limit police intrusiveness into the private lives of human rights defenders," said Paula Ettelbrick, Executive Director at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). "IGLHRC is proud of Victor and Oyo’s courage to set this precedent, not only for LGBT people but for everyone."

In July 2005, local officials illegally raided the home of LGBT activist Victor Mukasa, looking for "incriminating material." They seized documents and other materials related to LGBT organizing in Uganda. Mukasa was absent but officials arbitrarily arrested and detained Oyo Yvonne, taking her to a police station and subjecting her to humiliating and degrading treatment, including forcing her to undress "to prove that she was a woman." After the Ugandan government failed to investigate or take any action to remedy the wrongs that had occurred, Mukasa and Oyo filed a private suit against the Attorney General.

In yesterday’s ruling, Justice Arach acknowledged that the government was not directly responsible for the actions of the local official, an elected town councilor, but nevertheless held the Attorney General’s office responsible for the actions of the police. Justice Arach cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention of the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) ad key human rights treaties that had been violated by the police’s actions.

"The most important role that police can play is to protect people," said Mukasa, Program Associate for the Horn, East and Central Africa at IGLHRC and one of the founders of Sexual Minorities Uganda. "This judgment is a serious reminder to the Ugandan police that all Ugandans, including LGBT people, should be handled with respect and dignity."

IGLHRC has documented nearly a dozen arrests of LGBT people on charges related to homosexuality in Uganda over the last 5 years. Authorities have harassed LGBT human rights defenders in their homes and in public and fined a private radio station that broadcast a program on HIV prevention among men who have sex with men. In July 2005, Uganda’s Parliament passed an amendment to the constitution making Uganda only the second country in the world to use its supreme law to outlaw marriage between people of the same sex. In 2007, a coalition of religious leaders marched through the streets of Kampala demanding the arrests of LGBT people with one cleric even calling for the "starving to death" of homosexuals. Buttressed by the official homophobia of the state, the Ugandan media has published lists of gay men and lesbians, leading to physical violence, loss of employment and the curtailing of educational opportunities for those LGBT people who were named.

Against this backdrop, yesterday’s ruling is remarkable. In addition to the sharp rebuke to the state in the wording of the judgment, the court has awarded financial damages. IGLHRC, SMUG and a number of other local, regional and international organizations provided support to Mukasa and Oyo during their struggle for justice. IGLHRC and SMUG are studying the legal opinion and will issue a fuller analysis shortly.

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The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) is a leading human rights organization solely devoted to improving the rights of people around the world who are targeted for imprisonment, abuse or death because of their sexuality, gender identity or HIV/AIDS status. IGLHRC addresses human rights violations by partnering with and supporting activists in countries around the world, monitoring and documenting human rights abuses, engaging offending governments, and educating international human rights officials. A non-profit, non-governmental organization, IGLHRC is based in New York, with offices in Cape Town and Buenos Aires. Visit http://www.iglhrc.org for more information
SMUG is a coalition of three LGBTI organizations in Uganda; Freedom and Roam Uganda, Spectrum Uganda and Integrity Uganda.