Ugandan politicians are debating reintroduced anti-homosexuality proposals for prison sentences but references to the death penalty have been dropped.
An anti-homosexuality Bill, described by Barack Obama as “odious”, has been resurrected by the Ugandan Parliament. But according to the politician who reintroduced the Bill, it no longer contains a provision for the death penalty and proposes reduced proposed prison sentences for homosexual acts instead of a life sentence.
David Bahati, a member of Uganda’s ruling party put his Bill, first tabled in 2009, before Parliament to a standing ovation and cheers from fellow parliamentarians, shouting “our Bill, our Bill”.
There was some confusion about what exactly the text presented to Parliament contained but reaction from activists was swift with Amnesty International condemning the Bill’s revival, and a Ugandan campaigner describing its reception in Parliament as “shocking”.
Uganda gained international notoriety when the original Bill was unveiled, prompting denunciations from governments and activists across the world. Homosexuality is widely condemned in Uganda, and the country faced another media storm in January last year when a prominent gay activist, David Kato, was bludgeoned to death.
Police said Kato was killed during a robbery but human rights activists suspected that the murder was linked to his campaigning. His picture had been published a few months earlier in a newspaper that called for gays to be executed. The murder cemented Uganda’s reputation for homophobia.
Bahati said the confusion over his Bill’s content resulted from ignorance about Ugandan parliamentary procedure. He said he had to resubmit the Bill in its original form but amendments had been agreed last year and accepted.
‘Scary and traumatising’
These included a decision to drop references to the death penalty, originally mandated for “serial offenders” or people found guilty of a number of other homosexual acts. Bahati said life imprisonment terms contained in the first Bill had also been dropped.
“We are reducing the prison sentences to two to seven years. Even the life imprisonment is not there,” he said, adding that the Bill would take into account what “other people say”.
Julian Pepe Onziema, director of programmes at Sexual Minorities Uganda, where Kato also used to work, said he was in Parliament when Bahati reintroduced the Bill.
“It was really scary and traumatising, seeing MPs from the opposition camp and the incumbent camp cheering the Bill and calling it ‘our Bill’,” said Onziema, who is transgender.
Homosexuality is taboo in many African countries, and is illegal in 37, including Uganda. Few Africans are openly gay, as they fear stigma, imprisonment and violence. Anti-gay feelings in Uganda have been stoked in recent years by religious leaders, US evangelicals and politicians.
Amnesty International described the reintroduction of the Bill as “a grave assault on human rights” and said it was alarming that Uganda’s Parliament would again consider it.
When the Bill was originally submitted to Parliament, Hillary Clinton called on the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, to reject it, and some international donors, including Britain, threatened to cut aid if it became law.
Uganda’s cabinet dropped the Bill last August, saying that existing legislation was strong enough to deal with homosexual crimes.
Bahati said he resurrected the Bill to stop what he called the “promotion” of homosexuality and the inducement of children and to provide a “safety net” for Uganda, so that future governments would have to consult Parliament before adopting any international protocols that accepted homosexuality.
“The people of Uganda are anxiously looking to Parliament to protect the children,” he said. “We are not targeting anybody ... we are just trying to protect the majority of Ugandans from this evil,” he said, describing his campaign as “a fight against a new form of imperialism”.
Bahati accused western nations of hypocrisy, saying that they defended democracy elsewhere and yet wanted to stop a democratic process in Uganda.
“The West is saying that for us to give you money, we want you to accept behaviour that you abhor,” he said. “President Obama [is] a man who stood on a platform of change but certainly, this is not the change the world is looking for. It is the evil the world should fight.”
Onziema said the homosexual community was being used as a scapegoat. “My gut feeling is that it’s a statement to the western world ... Uganda is trying to prove a point that it can do what it wants.
“I think they are just using us as a political pawn. They know we are harmless ... they are just trying to gain support from the public, which has already been brainwashed,” he said, adding that issues such as alleged corruption and a lack of spending on health and education were more important.
“Those are issues they should be looking at. They should not be looking at people just seeking to love each other.”
Bahati said the Bill had been referred to a parliamentary committee, which had 45 days to examine it.—