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Uganda gays face life in prison under law

June 15, 2014 at 3:17 PM EDT
For gays living in Uganda, just walking outside of their homes can be dangerous. And today, long-standing prejudice has been institutionalized into law with the country’s “Anti-Homosexuality Act,” which calls for harsh sentences for gay acts. Offenders convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” face life in prison. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports from Kampala.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: For Geoffrey Ogwaro this, is a risk, just being out of his house. He is a gay activist, he lives in Uganda and that, he says, is dangerous.

GEOFFREOY OGWARO: You don’t know what’s going to happen to you next. You’re more careful, instead of living your life freely as a Ugandan you’re more cautious of the places you go to. Who you invite to your house.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Pepe Onziema is also active in the gay community in Kampala. He is extremely careful.

PEPE ONZIEMA: Many people know my face. I actually don’t go to the city because I’ve been attacked on the streets many times.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The attacks are sometimes lethal. This man was accused of being gay, he was beaten to death by a mob.
Others have been rounded up by police and arrested.

WOMAN ON STREET: There’s no use a man to sleep with the same man, I think that is even, god doesn’t like it, even the Bible says it’s not good.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: A very tough new law has just been passed in Uganda, the Anti-Homosexuality Act, calls for harsh sentences. The death penalty was proposed but ultimately dropped. Instead offenders convicted of aggravated homosexuality will face life in prison.

GEOFFREY OGWARO: What Parliament has done, through passing this law, is that people now reflect that hatred because they know this is a government stand.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Uganda’s long time President, Yoweri Museveni gave the bill final approval in February. Thousands marched on Kampala’s streets to celebrate an enormous victory for Uganda’s anti-gay movement.

YOWERI MUSEVENI: That’s why I said I am now going to sign the bill because I am convinced with the available information that these people are not born like that. They just learned, and they can unlearn what they have learned.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The new legislation triggered an international outcry. The White House was very critical. Barack Obama called the law odious, many donor countries threatened to suspend or cut aid to Uganda. Which upset President Museveni.

YOWERI MUSEVENI: I don’t like orders from anybody outside Uganda.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And many of the politicians behind the new law, including Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity.

SIMON LOKODO: I couldn’t believe there would be such a hard and discontentious response or reaction to this because I thought it was natural for everybody to have seen that we came to our senses and really denounced this unacceptable behavior in society.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Lokodo says the government will not hunt down homosexuals, but…

SIMON LOKODO: People who stubbornly come forward and say oh we are proud to be homosexuals, we are homosexuals by birth, this, for us in Uganda, are false.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: How will you deal with that?

SIMON LOKODO: We simply treat them now as outlaws, and they’ll be subjected to courts of law.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Just recently the first Ugandan men were brought to trial in a Kampala courtroom, charged with engaging in sex acts against the order of nature. As first time offenders they face 14 years in prison. Re-enforcing Geoffrey Ogwaro’s real fear about being Gay in Uganda.

So how does this make you feel, you’re a Ugandan, you grew up here?

GEOFFREY OGWARO: I feel sad. It’s very saddening for me that I should feel this way in my own country. And that is why a lot of times when people have asked me about options of leaving the country I’m like I’m not comfortable living in another country. This is my home, this is where I’ve grown up, I’m used to staying here.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Some gays in Uganda feel the risks of staying here are just too great. Better to leave now they say, while they still can.
They drive or fly away, often to neighboring Kenya. One relief organization dealing with Ugandan refugees says nearly 200 people arrive every month.
This man says he fled Uganda as soon as he could. He agreed to speak to us as long as we didn’t use his name.
Did you notice that it got significantly worse after the bill was signed in Uganda?

UGANDAN REFUGEE: Yes, you know in the bill it says clearly if you know someone or suspect someone that is gay, you have to go and report him to the officers. So everyone is unsafe.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: While he feels safer here, events in Uganda have raised anxiety in Kenya’s gay community. The two countries are neighbors and both belong to the East African Community of Nations.

KEVIN MWACHIRO: When the President assented to the law in Uganda, personally I felt I’m a target. I am now a target.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Kevin Mwachiro has written a book about Gay life in Kenya. He lives in Nairobi with his partner, Paolo.

KEVIN MWACHIRO: This thing could cross over and come home. We had murmurings in Kenya. We had murmurings from Tanzania as well and it makes you scared.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: In one Nairobi slum Pastor John Mbugua preaches against homosexuality; there is no doubt where he stands.

JOHN MBUGUA: And they deserve a punishment of death.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: To be gay and live in one of these overcrowded slums is enormously risky. People here live in very close quarters it is virtually impossible to hide anything from your neighbor. There is no such thing as privacy. Michael lives here in a tiny, one-room shack.

MICHAEL: Living in this community is hard because I have to keep my sexuality aside. Like keep it on a low profile.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: He and his partner move constantly, sometimes more than once a month. So what would happen if you didn’t move?

MICHAEL: By staying in one place it’s dangerous for me because people might start to suspect, like the neighbors asking questions

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And doing this, just taking a walk together, is taking a big chance. Homophobia isn’t at the level of Uganda, at least not yet. But activist Ndirutu Njoko is pushing for a special anti-homosexuality bill in Kenya.

NIRUTU NJOKO: If everyone, if every man would sing, would join the bandwagon of being a homosexual, of course the world will come to an end. So we are seeing homosexuality as a tool, as a weapon of mass destruction.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: But anti-gay laws are already enshrined in Kenya’s penal code. Some politicians simply want to see those laws enforced more strictly. Depressing words for those people fighting against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Ironically, back in Uganda, a constitutional challenge to the anti-gay law by a group of Ugandan politicians with support from a cross-section of society. Fox Odoi is a Ugandan member of Parliament. He is heterosexual. He is also a lawyer. He says Uganda’s constitution guarantees equal rights, for everyone.

FOX ODOI: In a nutshell the law institutionalizes homophobia. It basically provides a legal framework for homophobia and institutions that will be used for the promotion of homophobia and that is our problem with it.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The Ethics and Integrity Minister disagrees.

SIMON LOKODO: Our Constitution, the Constitution of Uganda, clearly states marriage between persons of the same sex is prohibited.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: A crucial debate for people like Pepe Onziema, a gay man living in Uganda.

PEPE ONZIEMA: As much as it’s hostile to live in this country, being out, open about my sexuality, is the best thing that I can do for myself, and for other people.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Onziema hopes the constitutional challenge succeeds, that the status quo will change because he says he will not.