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Uganda makes first arrest for ‘aggravated homosexuality,’ a crime punishable by death under new anti-LGBTQ+ law

A 20-year-old man has been accused under one of the harshest homophobic laws in the world, which has been condemned by the international community and human rights organizations

Uganda LGTB
A demonstration against the new Ugandan anti-LGBTQ+ law, in South Africa in April.Themba Hadebe (AP/Lapresse)

On the afternoon of August 15, 2023, a dust-covered police vehicle pulled up in front of Michael Opolot. The 20-year-old was among the cheering crowd that had come to witness the visit of the Ugandan president’s son, General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, in the eastern town of Soroti. The police arrested Opolot without explanation and drove off, witnesses told this newspaper.

According to the document containing the charges against the young man, to which Reuters had access, Opolot was charged on August 18 with “aggravated homosexuality” after “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 41-year-old man, a crime that is punishable by death in Uganda following the approval in May of one of the harshest anti-LBGTQ+ laws in the world. The crime is applied against “repeat offenders,” those who transmit HIV to others, or who have intimate relations with minors or people with disabilities. Opolot has been “charged with aggravated homosexuality because it is alleged that the person deemed to be the victim is not of sound mind,” explains Patience Muwanga, a human rights lawyer who is part of the defense team and works for the human rights organization Chapter Four. “But our investigation, and what is on record, [shows] there is actually no proof that the victim is of unsound mind.”

Since his arrest, Opolot has been held in Soroti main prison. On September 1, the young man appeared in court, but the proceedings were postponed until September 14, as the state prosecutor was not present. Muwanga adds that his legal team is working to ensure Opolot is granted bail before he appears in court again. One of his relatives, who spoke to EL PAÍS on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, expressed grave concern that they may never see him again. “Our family is devastated,” she said through tears. “I know it’s not safe to talk about his detention, but he is staring at the death penalty. We are pleading with the government to release him, because he is innocent.”

Jacqueline Okui, a spokesperson for the director of public prosecutions, merely commented in a telephone interview that “aggravated homosexuality is a crime punishable by capital punishment.” Frank Baine, a spokesman for the Ugandan prison services, warned that “the media should stop glorifying homosexuality because it is un-African. If he has a problem [following his arrest], let him face it. I can’t talk about him. Actually, I feel very uncomfortable talking about him,” he added.

But Muwanga points out that charging Opolot using the law against homosexuality is “inhumane” and that it is “gravely violating people’s rights.” “As human rights lawyers, we can’t sit, watch and wait. The process of doing away with this law needs to be expedited because its enforcement is against human rights,” she said. EL PAÍS tried unsuccessfully to contact the detained young man, as the authorities would not permit entry into the prison facilities.

“Many gay people are going into hiding to protect their lives”

Before the law was enacted in May by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, homosexual relations were already a crime in the country under rules dating back to the British colonial era and carried penalties of up to life imprisonment. The new legislation — passed in a context of increasing homophobia in Africa — not only maintains life imprisonment for sexual acts between persons of the same sex, but condemns “aggravated homosexuality” with the death penalty and “promotion of homosexuality” with up to 20 years in prison. Publicly defending homosexuality is a vague concept, and the LGBTQ+ community feels it is on thin ice.

“The recent rampant arrest of people for being homosexual has sent a wave of fear among the LGBTQ+ community in Uganda,” said Ram Gava, a gay pastor whose church was shut down when the new law was enacted. “Many gay people are going into hiding to protect their lives,” he added.

Bob Bwana, program officer for Ice Breaker, a community-based organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and provides health services in Uganda, says the law is increasingly becoming a “weapon” to target people who are not heterosexual. He says his organization has recorded a number of attacks, including blackmail attempts and kidnapping. This week, police arrested four people in Buikwe district in central Uganda and shut down the massage parlor where they worked, alleging that it offered gay sex in exchange for money. Bwana says entities like his are “holding secret talks, dialoguing and sensitizing homosexuals” in Uganda to be “vigilant and cautious in order to protect their lives.”

Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian association that helps LGBTQ+ people escape persecution in their home countries, said it had received 700 requests from Ugandans between January and May this year, more than any other year in the decade it has been working in the country.

For Ashwanee Budoo-Sholtz, Deputy Director of the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, “the international community must remain aware of these human rights violations and the threat that this law represents for the LGBTQI+ community.” Moreover, HIV-positive and at-risk people in Uganda have reported medical neglect and threats, as well as concern that HIV treatment and outreach programs will disappear due to lack of funding. Around 1.4 million people are living with AIDS in Uganda, out of a total population of 45 million, and 17,000 die annually from the disease, according to the latest data from the Uganda AIDS Commission.

Uganda risks paying for its anti-LGBTQ+ law with major funding cuts, which are vital to the state. According to data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 30% of Uganda’s population was living on less than $1.77 a day in 2020 and more than 40% of the country’s budget depends on international support, particularly in key sectors such as health and education. The United States and the European Union have condemned the “shameful” legislation and threatened Kampala with sanctions if it is not repealed. The World Bank announced in August that it will not provide funding to Uganda because the anti-homosexuality regulation “fundamentally contradicts the World Bank Group’s values.” “We believe our vision to eradicate poverty on a livable planet can only succeed if it includes everyone irrespective of race, gender, or sexuality. This law undermines those efforts. Inclusion and non-discrimination sit at the heart of our work around the world,” the institution said in a statement.

However, the Ugandan president’s response to international pressure has been one of defiance: “Nobody will move us — we should be ready for a war. Remember that war is not for the soft,” Museveni said in June.

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