On Monday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni enacted a law that provides for many years in prison and sometimes the death penalty for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. The law was approved by parliament in March and is considered one of the most punitive of its kind: for this reason the United Nations, Western countries and various civil rights organizations hoped that Museveni would not sign it. Instead, Museveni decided to do so, saying that in this way he wanted to “resist imperialist pressure”.
The entry into force of the law is considered an important victory for the country’s religious groups which in recent months had put strong pressure on parliamentarians, asking them to protect children and the “sanctity of the traditional African family”. Even before the approval of the law, Uganda was a very conservative country, where it was difficult to live as a person belonging to the LGBTQ+ community. In recent years, however, conspiracy theories have spread, especially online, accusing unspecified “international forces” of wanting to promote homosexuality in the country to corrupt its society.
The new law provides for life imprisonment for anyone who has sexual relations with people of the same sex, up to 10 years in prison for anyone who tries to have same-sex relationships, and the death penalty for anyone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality”, a term by which the law defines homosexual relations with minors under 18, disabled persons, obtained by threatening the other person or while the other person was unconscious.
Initially the text seemed to indicate that anyone suspected of being homosexual would be punished, while the new version signed by the president emphasizes that only people who have actually engaged in same-sex relationships will be punished. In any case, it is a very harsh law, which also provides for up to 20 years in prison for anyone who “promotes homosexuality”, a very vague term that according to activists will be used to target organizations that support the LGBTQ+ community or publish informative materials on the subject.
More than 30 African countries already ban same-sex relationships: among these is Uganda, based on an old colonial law that punishes “carnal knowledge against nature”. Other African countries, such as Kenya and Ghana, are considering adopting similar legislation in the coming months.
Frank Mugisha, the most prominent openly gay rights activist in Uganda, told the New York Times that in recent months, many LGBTQ+ Ugandans have begun to leave the country, fearing persecution once the law takes effect. Instead, a group of lawyers is preparing a case to be presented to the country’s Constitutional Court, in the hope of annulling the law.