Speaker of Uganda parliament wants to pass anti-gay law as “Christmas gift”

Rebecca Kadaga, Uganda’s parliamentary speaker said at a meeting on Tuesday that she wants to pass as a “Christmas gift” for Ugandans the anti-homosexuality bill introduced by David Bahati in October 2009. It is at present before a parliamentary committee. Homosexual acts, or “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, are already illegal under the country’s penal code, punishable by life imprisonment.

A video of Tuesday’s meeting shows Kadaga and the religious leaders, civil society, and anti-gay activists who presented a joint petition asking parliament to pass the bill as a “Christmas gift” to the country. “We call for urgent passing of the bill. We shall not sell our national birth right in exchange for a few dollars to soften on homosexuality,” the organizations said in the petition. “Ugandans are ready to pay the price of maintaining their values, cultural and societal norms whatever the cost might be.”

The bill has been repeatedly stalled in the parliamentary process. It seeks to widen the scope of crimes around homosexuality and to impose harsher punishments on offenders. The original version of the bill, tabled by ruling party MP David Bahati, proposed the death sentence for the crime of “aggravated homosexuality”, which covers, among other things, a homosexual act committed by an HIV-positive person and homosexual acts with minors; “serial offenders” would also face the death penalty.

Following widespread international criticism, Bahati re-tabled the bill in May 2011, downgrading the punishment for aggravated homosexuality to life imprisonment and removing the crime of “attempted homosexuality” and a clause requiring people in authority to report homosexual activities they are aware of within 24 hours or face jail. It prohibits the “promotion” of gay rights and punishes anyone who “funds or sponsors homosexuality” or “abets homosexuality”.

On Tuesday Rebecca Kadaga said: “Ugandans want that law as a Christmas gift. They have asked for it and we’ll give them that gift.” She said it was still possible to pass the bill this year although there was little time remaining before the House went on recess for Christmas holidays. “It’s very, very possible, we can do it,” she said. “Parliament has been energized because you have given us the instructions. We have the bill; we have the order paper and the numbers [to pass it].”

As House speaker, Kadaga can ask the committee to expedite scrutiny of a bill in order to bring it back to the House for final debate and voting.

Some international donors have threatened to cut aid if the legislation is passed. It was denounced as “odious” by U.S. President Barack Obama. The proposed bill has confronted President Yoweri Museveni with a difficult challenge, struggling to balance the demands of conservative evangelical Christians on one side and aid donors on one side and aid donors on the other. The bill has continued to have strong support both in and out of parliament, despite the President distancing himself from it in 2010 following international pressure.

Gay activists decry the bill

Activists have decried the bill, saying it is a violation of human rights that would make men who have sex with men (MSM) even less willing to access health services. MSM are considered by the Uganda AIDS Commission to be a “most at-risk population”, but because homosexual acts are illegal, there are no policies or services targeting HIV interventions towards them.

Pepe Julian Onziema, programme director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) said: “If this bill is passed into law, it will gravely affect HIV intervention because it will drive very many sexual minorities underground. There is nothing harder in society than curbing health issues of people who are marginalized and underground.”

Gays in Uganda say they face discrimination and are stigmatized by health workers when they seek care in the public and private health system. A clinic – opened this year in Kampala to deal with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) health issues – has faced severe opposition from Lokodo and other government officials.

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