Uganda passes bill imposing up to 10-year prison sentence for same-sex relations

A Ugandan transgender woman who was recently attacked and currently being sheltered watches a TV screen showing the live broadcast of the session from the Parliament for the anti-gay bill, at a local charity supporting the LGBTQ Community near Kampal

Ugandan lawmakers passed a bill prescribing jail terms of up to 10 years for offenses related to same-sex relations, responding to popular sentiment but piling more pressure on the East African country’s LGBTQ community.

The bill was passed late Tuesday inside a packed parliamentary chamber, and after a roll call ordered by the House speaker, who had repeatedly warned it was necessary to identify those who might oppose the bill. It was supported by nearly all of the 389 legislators present.

"Congratulations," said Speaker Anita Among. "Whatever we are doing, we are doing it for the people of Uganda."

An earlier version of the bill enacted in 2014 later was nullified by a court on procedural grounds. Human Rights Watch has described the legislation as "a more egregious version" of the 2014 law, which drew widespread international concern and was struck down amid pressure from Uganda’s development partners.

The bill now will go to President Yoweri Museveni, who can veto or sign it into law. He suggested in a recent speech that he supports the bill, accusing unnamed Western nations of "trying to impose their practices on other people."

The bill was introduced last month by an opposition lawmaker who said his goal was to punish "promotion, recruitment and funding" related to LGBTQ activities. His bill creates the offense of "aggravated homosexuality," which applies in cases of sex relations involving those infected with HIV as well as minors and other categories of vulnerable people. It was not immediately clear what the punishment is for that offense following last-minute amendments in a protracted plenary session in the capital, Kampala.

The bill also creates the offense of "attempted homosexuality," punishable with up to 10 years in jail.

Same-sex activity is already punishable with life imprisonment under a colonial-era law targeting "carnal knowledge against the order of nature," partly the basis of a report by dissenters on the parliamentary committee that vetted the bill before Tuesday’s vote.

The bill is "ill-conceived" and unconstitutional because it "criminalizes individuals instead of conduct," said lawmaker Fox Odoi, representing the dissenters.

The bill, if signed into law, "would violate multiple fundamental rights, including rights to freedom of expression and association, privacy, equality, and non-discrimination, according to Human Rights Watch.

"One of the most extreme features of this new bill is that it criminalizes people simply for being who they are as well as further infringing on the rights to privacy, and freedoms of expression and association that are already compromised in Uganda," the group’s Oryem Nyeko said in a statement earlier this month. "Ugandan politicians should focus on passing laws that protect vulnerable minorities and affirm fundamental rights and stop targeting LGBT people for political capital."

Anti-gay sentiment in Uganda has grown in recent weeks amid alleged reports of sodomy in boarding schools, including a prestigious one for boys where a parent accused a teacher of abusing her son. Authorities are investigating that case.

Uganda’s LGBTQ community in recent years has faced pressure from civilian authorities who wanted a tough new law punishing same-sex activity.

The Ugandan agency overseeing the work of NGOs last year stopped the operations of Sexual Minorities Uganda, the most prominent LGBTQ organization in the country, accusing it of failing to register legally. But the group’s leader stated that his organization had been rejected by the registrar of companies as undesirable.

The recent decision of the Church of England to bless civil marriages of same-sex couples also has inflamed many, including some who see homosexuality as imported from abroad.

"The Church of England has departed from the Anglican faith and are now false teachers," Ugandan Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba said in a statement last month that described "a crisis at hand."

Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries.