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Uganda starts charging people under extreme anti-LGBTQ law, raising execution fears

A gay Ugandan man holds a pride flag as he poses for a photograph in Uganda in March.
A gay Ugandan man holds a pride flag as he poses for a photograph in Uganda in March.

LAGOS, Nigeria — Two men in Uganda are the first to be charged with "aggravated homosexuality," which carries the death penalty under a new anti-gay law passed in May. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, but the new law has been condemned as one of the most extreme such laws in the world.

In the more recent andwidely reported case, a 20-year-old man was arrested Aug. 18 and charged with "aggravated homosexuality," defined as same-sex relations with someone who's HIV-positive, a child, an elderly person or disabled person. The defendant is accused of having relations with a disabled 41-year-old man, according to the spokesperson for Uganda's director of prosecutions. The defendant's lawyer said it could be six months before the man appears in court again.

The case highlights the threats for LGBTQ+ people in Uganda since President Yoweri Museveni signed the new law after it was passed almost unanimously by Uganda's parliament.

Human rights advocates in the East African country say the harsh legislation promotes a "witch hunt" of sexual minorities, those who are perceived to be sexual minorities and anyone who offers them support. The law has already sent many from the LGBTQ+ community into hiding.

In a previous case, a 43-year-old man was arrested in Jinja City, eastern Uganda, on July 18. Jacqueline Okui, spokesperson for theOffice of the Director of Public Prosecutions, tells NPR the man was charged for allegedly performing "a sexual act with a child aged 12 years of the same sex."

Prosecutors decided the man would be tried for "aggravated homosexuality" rather than under Uganda's defilement laws, known as statutory rape laws in some countries. Legal experts say it is likely that prosecutors did this in order to obtain the most severe punishment.

Uganda's British colonial-era penal code already punished same-sex acts, and the law had previously been updated by Ugandan lawmakers to offer sentences of up to life imprisonment.

Butthe new law goes much further, introducing the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality" and criminalizing the "promotion of homosexuality," with up to 20 years in prison, potentially targeting human rights and advocacy groups who provide support for LGBTQ+ people.

The law makes it a challenge for journalists in Uganda to freely cover such cases, fearing their reporting may be perceived by authorities as promotion of homosexuality.

After the new law came into force, Human Rights Watch criticized it, saying it "violates multiple fundamental rights guaranteed under Uganda's constitution and breaks commitments made by the government as a signatory to a number of international human rights agreements."

The World Bank has also condemned the law and blocked new loans to the country. Washington imposed visa restrictionson some government officials and is reviewing U.S. aid to Uganda.

Yet Museveni has hit back and fiercely defended the law. He condemned the World Bank as hypocritical, saying that other countries with anti-gay laws receive its funding. He has vowed to resist external pressure.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.