Ugandan court invalidates anti-gay law, says measure passed illegally

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signs a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex, in Entebbe, Uganda Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signs a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex, in Entebbe, Uganda Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Rebecca Vassie, AP

Nicholas Opiyo, a Ugandan lawyer who was among the petitioners, welcomed the ruling but said there is a missed opportunity to debate the substance of the law. “The ideal situation would have been to deal with the other issues of the law, to sort out this thing once and for all,” Opiyo said.

A colonial-era law that criminalizes sex acts “against the order of nature” still remains in effect in Uganda, allowing for the continued arrests of alleged homosexual offenders, Opiyo said.

Lawmakers might also try to reintroduce a new anti-gay measure, he said.

Kosiya Kasibayo, a state attorney, said a decision had not been made on whether to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court, Uganda’s highest court.

The anti-gay legislation was enacted on Feb. 24 by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who said he wanted to deter Western groups from promoting homosexuality among African children.

Some European countries and the World Bank withheld aid over the law, piling pressure on Uganda’s government, which depends on Western support to implement a substantial part of its budget. Ofwono Opondo, a Ugandan government spokesman, had repeatedly described Western action over the law as “blackmail.” Opondo and other government officials were not immediately available for comment after the Friday ruling.

Supporters of the anti-gay measure say they believe Museveni – who will lead Uganda’s delegation to the U.S. next week- may have quietly backed the court’s ruling. Many Ugandans see the courts as lacking independence and unlikely to make decisions strongly opposed by Museveni, who has held power here for nearly three decades.

“This ruling has got nothing to do with the will of the people,” said Martin Ssempa, a prominent Ugandan cleric who has led street marches in support of the anti-gay measure. “Unfortunately, it has everything to do with pressure from Barack Obama and the homosexuals of Europe.”

Although Ugandan police say there have been no arrests of alleged homosexual offenders since the bill was enacted, gay leaders and activists say suspected homosexuals have been harassed by the police as well as landlords, sending many underground and unable to access essential health services. Ugandan police raided the offices of a U.S.-funded clinic that offered AIDS services to homosexuals after the bill was enacted.

The HIV prevalence rate among homosexual men in the Ugandan capital of Kampala is 13 percent, about double the national average, according to the U.S.-based advocacy group Health GAP. It said in a statement that the court’s decision was “a crucial development for increased access” to life-saving health services.

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