As It Happens

As Ugandan court upholds anti-gay law, activists fear rising hatred and violence

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera says Uganda's anti-gay legislation has already empowered people to abuse members of her community. Now, she fears it's about to get worse.

Judges strike down some parts of Anti-Homosexuality Act — but not the one that allows for the death penalty

Two women stand next to each other among a crowd of people. They are wearing matching shirts that say:  "HIV/AIDS Gender Equality Human Rights"
Human rights activists stand outside the Constitutional Court in Kampala, Uganda on Wednesday as judges upheld most sections of the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act. (Hajarah Nalwadda/The Associated Press)

Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera says Uganda's anti-gay legislation has already empowered people to abuse members of her community. Now, she fears it's about to get worse.

On Wednesday, Uganda's Constitutional Court largely upheld the 2023 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which punishes same-sex activity with long prison sentences, and in some cases, the death penalty.

Nabagesera, a Ugandan 2SLGBTQ+ activist who helped bring forward the case, says the law has already fuelled hatred in her home country, and this ruling will further fan those flames.

"Now Ugandans, you can continue to kill, to beat, to rape these people who simply love different from you," Nabagesera said during an emotional interview with As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

"It has given them impunity … [to] let every homosexual die simply because they're homosexual."

What's in the law?

The law, passed last year in Uganda's parliament, has drawn widespread condemnation from the international community, rights organizations and 2SLGBTQ+ people inside and outside of the country. 

Nevertheless, the judges said that it does not violate Uganda's constitution.

"We decline to nullify the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 in its entirety, neither will we grant a permanent injunction against its enforcement," lead judge Richard Buteera said.

Two bald men in black robes smile and shake hands.
Martin Mwambustya, right, director of civil litigation in Uganda's attorney general's office, shakes hands with Pastor Martin Ssempa as the Constitutional Court gives its seal of approval on the country's anti-homosexuality law. (Hajarah Nalwadda/The Associated Press)

Before 2023, homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda under a colonial-era law criminalizing sexual activity "against the order of nature" with a punishment of life imprisonment.

The new law also carries penalties of up to life behind bars for consensual same-sex activity. What's more, it allows the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," which is defined as same-sex relations involving a minor and other categories of vulnerable people, or in which the accused has HIV. 

A suspect convicted of "attempted aggravated homosexuality" can be imprisoned for up to 14 years, and the offence of "attempted homosexuality" is punishable by up to 10 years.

It also criminalizes the promotion of homosexuality, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Medium shot of a wman with dark hair, looking seriously towards the camera
Ugandan 2SLGBTQ+ rights activist Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera says the law gives Ugandans 'impunity' to harm and kill. (Reuters)

"The judges are supposed to … protect vulnerable groups,  but they have rather sided with majority Ugandans to punish minority groups," said Frank Mugisha, one the Ugandan 2SLGBTQ+ activists who asked the court to strike down the law.

He says he and his fellow petitioners plan to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Some elements struck down

The court did, however, strike down certain parts of the law that it deemed "inconsistent with the right to health, privacy and freedom of religion," including sections that criminalized renting property to people to "use for homosexual acts," and failure to report homosexual activity.

The judges also ruled that Ugandans should not be discriminated against when seeking medication. Advocates had warned the law would prevent people from seeking treatment for HIV for fear of being reported to authorities. 

But critics of the law say that's not nearly enough.

Volker Türk, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, says nearly 600 people have been reportedly subjected to rights violations and abuses in Uganda based on their actual or assumed sexual orientation or gender identity since the law was enacted in May.

One prominent activist was stabbed by unknown assailants in the nation's capital Kampala in January. 

"It must be repealed in its entirety or unfortunately, this number will only rise," he said in a statement.

A man with short braided hair lies in a hospital bed on his side, facing the camera and clutching his mid-section. He has bandages around one arm and is attached to an IV.
Ugandan 2SLGBTQ+ activist Steven Kabuye receives treatment at a hospital after he was stabbed in Kitende, on the outskirts of Kampala in January. He is one of more than 600 people who have faced abuse since Uganda's anti-gay law came into effect, according to the United Nations. (Hajarah Nalwadda/The Associated Press)

Nabagesera blames not only the government for passing the law, and the court for upholding it, but also extremists and evangelicals from other countries who she says come to Uganda and spread dangerous and hateful rhetoric. 

She says not only are gay people targeted with violence, but also "anyone who is different from the patriarchal system of 'a man is supposed to look like this, a woman is supposed to look like this.'"

"They're going to start beating and killing children and youths," she said, her voice breaking before giving way to sobs.

"I'm f---ing pissed."

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters. Interview with Kasha Nabagesera produced by Katie Geleff

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