Yoweri Museveni, the longtime authoritarian president of Uganda, announced on Thursday that he would not sign into law a legislative bill that would greatly expand criminal punishment for individuals suspected of being gay, including proscribing the death penalty for a new crime: “aggravated homosexuality.”
Museveni explained during a public event with this National Resistance Movement (NRM) political party that he enthusiastically supported the 2023 “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” but felt it needed to be amended to allow for “amnesty” to the “psychologically disoriented person” who admits to identifying as LGBT in the past but vows to no longer do so.
The Ugandan Parliament overwhelmingly passed the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” in late March; only two of 389 lawmakers voted against it. The bill expands on already existing laws that criminalize gay identity and homosexual activity in Uganda, creating new crimes, such as “promoting and abetting homosexuality” and “aggravated homosexuality.” “Homosexuality” as a crime in itself is punishable by life in prison as the bill is currently written.
The bill defines “aggravated homosexuality” as crimes such as homosexual sex with children and various forms of sexual assault involving same-sex people, including the use of drugs to rape someone, sexual assault of a family member, or sexual assault by a “person living with HIV.”
The sweeping definitions of new crimes in the bill have alarmed Uganda’s LGBT population, who already live under tremendous societal persecution. Human rights activists have warned that the bill may have a social effect in which the landlords that rent to shelters for poor LGBT people may expel them, employers may fear hiring a suspected gay person, or violent criminals may feel emboldened to assault suspected LGBT people.
“LGBTQ persons are going to fear going to health centers for services. … There’s going to be a lot of trauma and cases of mental health that will lead to a lot of suicide,” Ugandan gay rights activist Frank Mugisha told Reuters in March.
In his remarks on Thursday, Museveni insisted that the bill needed to allow for those who had engaged in homosexual activity, but no longer did so, to publicly acknowledge their past without facing criminal retribution.
“This country has issued amnesty for people who have carried out criminal activities of treasonous nature against this country,” Museveni said, according to the state media company Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC). “A similar provision would be provided in this law to ensure that a person who comes out on his own is not criminalized.”
“The issue I raised is a matter of substance,” Museveni elaborated. “I totally agree with the bill, but my original problem is the psychologically disoriented person. What you are saying is that the law doesn’t recognise him as long as he does not act. But how do you provide for him to come out?”
Aside from his one demand, Museveni effusively applauded lawmakers for passing the bill, describing the measure as a rejection of European colonialism.
“It is good that you rejected the pressure from the imperialists. Those imperialists have been messing up the world for 600 years causing so much damage,” UBC quoted Museveni as saying. “Therefore, I congratulate you for making that stand and also the bishops, the religious people and the citizens.”
The law criminalizing homosexuality already in vigor in Uganda dates back to the colonial era, according to Al Jazeera.
“Europe is lost and they also want us to be lost. Those who want an easy life will end up being prostitutes,” Museveni continued, warning that the West would likely rescind aid to the country, but Uganda should resist “parasitism.” The president accused Western countries of “threatening … to kill our 1.2 million people who have been surviving on PEPFAR funds to buy drugs for HIV/AIDS so that we don’t buy the drugs for our people, and they die.”
Presidential spokesman Sandor Walusimbi confirmed on social media that Parliament would amend the law to please Museveni in the near future.
“[Museveni] told the members that he had no objections to the punishments but on the issue of rehabilitation of the persons who have in the past been engaged in homosexuality but would like to live normal lives again,” Walusimbi wrote. “It was agreed that the bill goes back to parliament for the issues of rehabilitation to be looked at before he can sign it into law.”
While a staunch supporter of the world’s most prominent leftist states – a loyal ally to China, Cuba, and Belarus, among other communist countries – Museveni has taken on a public identity as the world’s foremost anti-LGBT head of state. In early April, the Ugandan president delivered a speech to African leaders urging a continental movement to oppress “the promotion and publicization of homosexuality” in the name of eradicating European influence.
“Africa should provide the lead to save the world from this degeneration and decadence, which is really very dangerous for humanity,” Museveni declared. “If people of opposite sex stop appreciating one another, then how will the human race be propagated?”
The “Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” Uganda’s Observer reported this week, was designed as a measure of “protest” against the West generally. Specifically, the newspaper, citing anonymous “insiders,” claimed that lawmakers passed the bill to protest Europe’s complaints against fossil fuel projects in the country.
“The bill was a protest by the Ugandan government against the European Union Parliament for passing a resolution against the development of the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline project due to its purported effect on the environment,” one anonymous “insider” reportedly said.
“Since European and North American countries believe in environmental protection and protecting sexual minorities, Ugandans also believe in African culture, which has no room for homosexuality,” another “insider” claimed. “Kampala wanted to inform Brussels and any other leaders in North America that they were bound to lose something that they believed in, like the protection of sexual minorities.”
The administration of leftist President Joe Biden condemned the bill when it passed but has not taken any meaningful action in response.
“The anti-homosexuality act passed by the Ugandan parliament yesterday (March 21, 2023) would undermine the fundamental human rights of all Ugandans and could reverse gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted in March. “We urge the Ugandan Government to strongly reconsider the implementation of this legislation.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that month, however, that Washington had no plans to limit exchanges with Uganda.
“We remain committed to supporting health, democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and prosperity in Uganda, and we continue to engage with our Government of Uganda counterparts on a wide range of issues, including those related to human rights, to improve the lives of all Ugandans,” Price told reporters when asked about the bill.
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