Death penalty dropped, but Uganda anti-gay bill may be passed within days

The death penalty has been dropped from a highly controversial bill which seeks to strengthen Uganda’s already stringent anti-homosexuality laws.

The bill, which originally proposed capital punishment for adults who have consensual gay sex, was put before the Ugandan parliament on Thursday and is expected to be voted into law within days or weeks.

MP Medard Sedona, who sits on the Legal and Parliamentary affairs committee which presented the bill to parliament last week, told the BBC that those convicted of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ would no longer face the gallows. "I can confirm it [the death penalty] has been dropped," he said.

‘Aggravated homosexuality’, which remains a key component of the proposed new law, is now expected to be punishable by life imprisonment. It includes homosexual acts committed by a person who is HIV-positive, is a parent or authority figure, homosexual acts committed on minors or people with disabilities, and repeat offenders (understood to mean anyone caught having gay sex more than once).

The private member’s bill, first proposed by government MP David Bahati in 2009, has sparked international outrage, including threats of withdrawal of aid to Uganda. In addition to introducing the death penalty for some gay offences, it sought to make it illegal not to report a gay person to the police within 24 hours. Failure to do so will result in a fine or up to three years in prison. The bill also makes it illegal to rent property to gay people, or to engage in any activity, including blogging, that supports the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) cause.

Activists say that, now it has been presented to MPs, it is virtually certain that the bill will be debated, voted on and passed into law. But the precise timing is hard to predict.

“It’s very difficult to know exactly when the bill will be debated because of the way our parliament works,” says Frank Mugisha, leader of campaign group Sexual Minorities Uganda. “Every day, the parliament draws up an order paper with items which must be debated that day, and in addition, what is called ‘business to follow’, bills which will be debated when time allows.”

Like many other bills, the anti-homosexuality bill is in the ‘business to follow’ category.

“It could be debated tomorrow, because a bill on the order paper cannot be completed that day” Mugisha says. “But if parliament goes on debating items on the order paper it could take a week or longer to get to it.”

He is adamant, however, that the bill will be debated and voted on sooner rather than later.

This view was confirmed by Speaker of the Ugandan parliament Rebecca Kadaga, a strong supporter of the bill, who earlier this month told MP’s: "Ugandans want that law as a Christmas gift. They have asked for it and we'll give them that gift."

Other Ugandan MPs share her enthusiasm, according to Mugisha.

“Over 85% of MPs, from both the opposition and the ruling party want to pass the bill,” he says.

The anti-gay legislation also has widespread support among the general population, Mugisha says, but he blames religious leaders for whipping up homophobia.

“Most of it has to do with ignorance,” he says. “This hatred has been put into the hearts of Ugandan people by their religious leaders who have pushed for this law.”

US evangelicals have been accused of inspiring homophobic feeling in Uganda and forging links with religious and political leaders in pursuit of an anti-gay agenda.   

In March 2009, shortly before the anti-gay bill was first proposed, a workshop took place in Kampala, led by American evangelical Christians who claimed to be experts on homosexuality. According to the New York Times, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and politicians heard how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys, and how the gay movement sought to replace marriage with a culture of promiscuity.

International gay human rights charity Kaleidoscope is supporting gay activists in Uganda.

Speaking from Kampala last week, Kaleidoscope’s Deputy Executive Director, Harjeet Johal, said: “It is clear that people here expect this pernicious piece of legislation to be passed. While we condemn this evil bill from the safety of our own countries, the LGBT community here cannot escape its consequences.”

Interview with Frank Mugisha, 22nd November 2012 (4 mins 33 seconds):


About the author

Jamie Elliott is a freelance investigative journalist and researcher who specialises in employment rights and writes for the Guardian, Observer and other publications. He is also Course Director at London Journalism Centre where he teaches investigative journalism and media law.