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Uganda fear over gay death-penalty plans

22 December 09 12:33 GMT

By Joshua Mmali
BBC News, Kampala

An attempt to punish "aggravated homosexuality" in Uganda with the death penalty has caused outrage across the world - and revealed a huge divide in Ugandan society.

"Even my friends who are not gay are now scared because they think if this bill is passed, they'll be targeted," says Julian Pepe, an openly gay Ugandan who campaigns for homosexual rights.

"I feel scared. I feel I am in danger. I've tried to put a few security measures in place and I am constantly watching over my shoulder."

Gay people in Uganda can already be jailed for 14 years for engaging in homosexual acts. The new bill wants to raise that to life imprisonment, even though no-one has ever been convicted of homosexual acts in Uganda.

Ms Pepe say the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is out of touch and believes Ugandans should not waste their time even debating it.

But the MP who proposed the bill, David Bahati, from the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), is equally convinced of his position.

"Here, we don't recognise homosexuality as a right. We are after the sin, not the sinners. We love them - and we want them to repent and come back," he says.

"It's not an inborn orientation, it's a behaviour learnt - and it can be unlearnt. That's why we are encouraging churches and mosques to continue rehabilitating and counselling these people."

Evidence

Mr Bahati and his supporters say the bill is meant to prohibit the "promotion or recognition of homosexuality and to protect children and the youth who are vulnerable to sexual abuse and deviation".

To that end, it proposes the death penalty for offences such as engaging in homosexual acts with a disabled person or anyone under 18 years old.

The death penalty is also proposed when the "offender" is HIV-positive.

But anyone suspected of committing homosexual acts would be subjected to a mandatory medical examination to establish whether they are HIV-positive or not.

So potentially someone who had consensual sex without knowing they had HIV could end up facing execution.

"Serial offenders" also face the death penalty.

Another clause outlaws helping, counselling, or encouraging another person to engage in a homosexual act - making such an offence punishable by up to seven years in jail.

Parliament is due to debate the bill early next year.

Although harsh penalties are already on the statute book, the authorities have not been overly zealous in enforcing the law.

People who have openly declared that they are gay have not been prosecuted because declaring sexual orientation is not a crime.

It is not easy getting evidence of people committing homosexual acts.

'Spiritual values'

So far there has been relative silence on the proposals from Mr Bahati's boss, President Yoweri Museveni.

He has previously condemned homosexuals but now he is under pressure from international donors, who contribute a large portion of Uganda's budget.

Among those most strongly opposing the bill is Sweden, which has said it would withdraw the $50m (£31m) of aid it gives to Uganda each year if the measures become law.

At the Commonwealth meeting in November several Western leaders are reported to have urged President Museveni to consider the dangers the proposals could pose to Uganda's rights record.

But his Ethics and Integrity Minister James Nsaba Buturo has stated repeatedly that Uganda will never embrace homosexuality or even acknowledge it as a human rights issue.

And the bill seems to have other backers in high places too - the country's religious leaders have given their support to the proposals.

All members of the Inter-religious Council of Uganda (IRC) have recommended that the government should cut diplomatic ties with countries that want Uganda to accept homosexuality.

The council's Joshua Kitakule says Western countries "should respect our spiritual values - they shouldn't interfere".

But anger about the bill has not been limited to Western nations.

Seventeen rights groups - local and international - issued a statement condemning the bill as soon as it was put before parliament.

"This bill is a blow to democracy in Uganda," says David Kato of lobby group Sexual Minorities Uganda.

"It goes against the inclusive spirit necessary for our economic as well as political development. Its spirit is profoundly undemocratic and un-African."

Kate Sheill, Amnesty International's expert on sexual rights, says some of the bill's provisions are illegal.

"They criminalise a sector of society for being who they are, when what the government should be doing instead is protecting them from discrimination and abuse," she says.

'Foreign behaviour'

Gay rights groups estimate there are 500,000 gay people in Uganda out of a population of about 31 million.

The government says their figures are an exaggeration designed to popularise homosexuality.

It is obviously almost impossible to come up with accurate figures.

While Mr Bahati and his supporters say homosexuality is a Western import, people on the streets of Kampala are divided on the issue.

Banking officer Maureen agrees that the bill is needed to safeguard Uganda's cultural heritage.

"To see foreign behaviour such as this begin to infiltrate our society here scares some people into thinking that one day we might accept it and become too free with it, and our children will be the next victims," she says.

"How will society get children if men start marrying men?"

But IT assistant Kim asks: "Do consensual adult same-sex relationships equal defilement of minors?

"This bill makes no effort to differentiate the two... one is a criminal offence which should be punished, the other is a consensual act between two adults, interfering with which would contradict the most basic freedoms and human rights."

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