A stark reminder

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Gay rights activist’s death draws questions in Uganda

Ed Kapp
News Writer

Despite a 2010 report suggesting Uganda’s overwhelmingly adverse attitude towards homosexuality is lightening, the murder of David Kato – Uganda’s most prominent gay rights activist – serves as a stark reminder that even alleged homosexuals are still in a great deal of danger in the East African nation of Uganda.

Widely regarded as one of the least homosexual-friendly nations in the world, a 2007 study of Uganda by the Pew Research Center (PRC) reported that a staggering 96 per cent of the Ugandan citizens polled believed that “homosexuality should be rejected.”

Fortunately for Uganda’s homosexual population, a 2010 study by the same group revealed Uganda in fact registered as one of the nations with the highest number of people who “accepted homosexuality.” With a marked increase of 11 per cent, there was great growth from the PRC’s 2007 study.

Uganda has a long history of discrimination against homosexual people.

Officially illegal for men since the 1800s, and women since the Penal Code Amendment Act of 2000, sexual activity between members of the same sex has been an incriminating act in Uganda since the days of British colonial rule in the 19th century.
After gaining independence from the British, the Ugandan government affirmed their hard-line stance against homosexual activity by retaining Uganda’s steadfast laws prohibiting such behaviour.

The law is located under the sub-category “unnatural offences” of Uganda’s Penal Code Act of 1950.

“Any person [that] has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature, [or] has carnal knowledge of an animal, or permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature,” is subject to punishment of up to 14 years in prison.

Unfortunately for Uganda’s already oppressed homosexual populace, which was estimated by gay rights activists in 2007 at 500,000 – roughly just over one per cent of Uganda’s population – a number of Ugandan members of parliament are pushing for legislation that calls for more stringent penalties for those who partake in homosexual activities.

The Uganda Anti-Homosexual Bill, introduced by MP David Bahati on Oct. 14, 2009, initially called for the death penalty for homosexuals in certain instances. This included men or women who have previous convictions, are HIV-positive, or engage in same-sex acts with people under the age of 18. Since the initial tabling of the bill, however, Bahati has said that he is now pursuing life imprisonment in lieu of the death penalty for those proven to be involved in homosexual activities.

At first, Bahati insisted that his bill had a “99 per cent” chance of being passed into law. That resulted in outrage from politicians, including Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, citizens of Uganda, and members of the international community. This has left many skeptical about whether the Ugandan Anti-Homosexual Bill will be enshrined into Uganda’s penal code.

When the legislation was initially announced in 2009, the federal government of Canada was quick to condemn the Ugandan parliament’s ambitions.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s spokesperson, Dimitri Soudas, said, “If adopted, a bill further criminalizing homosexuality would constitute a step backwards for the protection for human rights in Uganda.”

Although there are heavy doubts that Uganda’s newest piece of anti-homosexual legislation will be passed into law, many fear that Ugandan citizens will essentially take the “law” into their own hands. That is the widely speculated case with David Kato, the most prominent proponent of gay rights in Ugandan history, and one of nation’s very few openly homosexual men.

In 2009, Kato was among 100 alleged homosexuals named by a Ugandan tabloid, along with photos and addresses of the suspected men and women. These were listed under a banner that read, “hang them”.

Within days, a number of the men and women listed by Rolling Stone [no affiliation to the American publication] had either reported being harassed, having their property destroyed, or had gone into hiding in fear of retaliation.

Kato, a teacher and advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), along with two other SMUG members, subsequently took the tabloid to court.

On Jan. 3, 2011, High Court Justice V. F. Kibuuka Musoke ruled that Rolling Stone’s publication of the list, photos, and addresses – along with the accompanying incitation of violence – threatened Kato and the others’ “fundamental rights and freedoms.” The tabloid was subsequently ordered to pay the plaintiffs 1.5 million Ugandan shillings, roughly $650 CAD.

In the early afternoon of Jan. 26, nearly a month after his victory over the publication, Kato was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his home while speaking with a fellow SMUG member over the telephone.

Within a few days Ugandan authorities had arrested one man and officially declared Kato’s murder an attempted robbery, much to the dismay of Kato’s acquaintances and a number of outside observers. In the weeks following January’s court battle, Kato had spoken publically of an increase in the number of threats he had been receiving from his opponents.

Joe Oloka-Onyango, director of the Makerere University Human Rights and Peace Centre in Kampala, Uganda, worked extensively with Kato throughout his court battle against Rolling Stone. He argued that “[attempted robbery] is a very strange thing to happen in the middle of the day, and suggests pre-meditation.”

In the wake of Kato’s death, human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both called for the Ugandan government to provide an in-depth and impartial investigation into Kato’s death. They hope to further provide protection for Ugandan gay-rights activists, many of whom having already dealt with similar threats.

Although it’s too early to tell what the Ugandan government’s response to Kato’s untimely death will be, the Vancouver Sun’s Tara Carman, offered her opinion of the situation on Jan. 29.

“Ugandan officials are eager to distance Kato’s murder from the issue of gay rights because of the overwhelming international response to the tabling of the anti-homosexuality bill in parliament in 2009, for which they were completely unprepared.” 

Carmen further argued, “The bill has been languishing in a parliamentary committee for months as the government mulls over how to placate the international community without appearing to sell out to Ugandans, who strongly support the legislation. [It’s] much easier to label Kato’s death a theft gone wrong and sweep it under the carpet as quickly as possible.”

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