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Uganda MPs return death penalty for gays

Members of Parliament last night enacted the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, with a last-minute introduction of death as penalty for the offence of aggravated homosexuality.

The punishment proposed in the original Bill moved by MP Asuman Basalirwa (Bugiri Municipality, Jeema) for aggravated homosexuality was 10 years’ imprisonment.

Aggravated homosexuality is defined in the enacted Act as the offence of homosexuality where the victim is below 14 years or above 75, a person living with disability or mental illness, or where a person contracts an illness with no scientific cure, or the offender is a parent, guardian or a serial offender.

Ms Robina Rwakoojo, the chairperson of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee, which considered the Bill, said the changes in penalties were made to harmonise them with provisions in the Penal Code Act for similar offences such as defilement.

A person convicted of attempted aggravated homosexuality faces 14 years in prison.

Overall, the penalties prescribed in the final version of the legislation, which awaits the President’s assent to give it effect of law, are stiffer than initial Basalirwa propositions.

President’s hand

Once notified by Parliament, the presiden may sign or return the act, with reasons, within 60 days for reconsideration by legislators. Lawmakers may re-enact it with or without amendment and an Act passed a third time will gain the force of law if a President declines to sign it on second enactment.

In his March 16 address to a special sitting of the House, President Museveni branded homosexuals deviants, asked Western countries not to impose their practices on others, but said his government would need a deeper discussion – based on science – on whether homosexuality is a result of “nature or nurture”.

It was a walk back by about a decade because the President signed the previous Anti-Homosexuality Act, which the Constitutional Court nullified on grounds that it was enacted without quorum, after government scientists to whom he asked the same question told him that there was no evidence of genetic predisposition to homosexuality.

Information Minister and Government spokesman Chris Baryomunsi, who is a medical doctor, yesterday cited unspecified multiple studies that he said had all concluded that homosexuality was not a characteristic passed through genes, but rather a “deviation, an abnormality”.

Mr Mathias Mpuuga, the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, said Mr Museveni had spoken “in tongues” on the matter during his address last week to MPs at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds.

Drawing on the comments, Mr Basalirwa, the president of the Opposition Jeema party, while referring to the head of state as “my colleague”, noted that he hoped he would sign the new legislation into law with the “same gesture” as his televised assent to the older nullified version.

There was a record attendance and a roll-call taken on the instructions of Speaker Among, who made clear she was keen on preventing flaws during the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality law that court nullified, showed 389 lawmakers in attendance  — 55 of who logged-in on Zoom to follow the proceedings.

By the time they were done by about 9pm – many having entertained with humorous and amorous commentary during a session lasting non-stop over six hours – the MPs had tightened almost all penalties in the Bill.

For instance, Mr Basalirwa had proposed that the offence of homosexuality be punishable by 10 years in jail, but the lawmakers doubled the sentence.

They defined homosexuality as the offence where a person performs a sexual act on another person of the same sex or allows a person of the same sex to perform a sexual act on him or her. Children found guilty of engaging in homosexuality faces three years in jail, with provisions for rehabilitation, in line with the Children’s Act.

The House voted by acclamation, by shouting out “aye”, an unexplained reversal by Speaker Among who in the run-up to the enactment vowed that the vote would be taken by show of hands so that Ugandans would see which of their representatives were in support or against homosexuality – a polarising and touchy subject nationally.

A proposal by the committee, basing on submissions by the Uganda Medical Association, that an offender could face lesser sentence on proving genetic predisposition to homosexuality, was thrown out.

Minority report

MP Fox Odoi, a former head of State House legal department, who was also among the lead petitioners in the 2014 case where court quashed the old anti gay law, presented a minority report in which he argued that the legislation passed yesterday was unnecessary, duplicates offences and penalties already specified in the Penal Code Act and breaches individual rights on whom to love.

Speaker Among struggled to rein-in majority lawmakers who repeatedly booed Mr Odoi, a member of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee, for his stance.

Under the Act, a person found culpable of promoting homosexuality faces 20 years imprisonment. There are also punishments for journalists and editors, film directors, and corporate entities/organisations whose work is interpreted to promote homosexuality.

Also in trouble are landlords who rent their premises out to homosexuals, owners of brothels used by homosexuals and individuals who recruit or groom children into homosexuality.

Legal entities found culpable of any of the offences face Shs1b fine and a decade-long suspension of their activities. A person who contracts, attends, witnesses, presides over or participates in preparation of a same-sex marriage risks 10 years in prison.

Failure to report an attempted or acts of homosexuality is punishable by Shs100m fine or imprisonment for six months, or both.

This is the second time Uganda’s Parliament passes a law to criminalise homosexuality. A similar one sponsored by current Industry State minister David Bahati was nullified by the Constitutional Court in 2014 on technicality.

At yesterday’s session, Deputy Attorney General Jackson Kafuuzi and Government Chief Whip Hamson Obua, both assured the legislators of the government’s total support to the Act, four days after Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka informed the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee that the then Bill was a duplication and unnecessary. He was absent in the House yesterday.

“My office and Attorney General have looked at the Bill,” Mr Kafuuzi said as the House began debate on it, “We have made consultations with the mover, we harmonised [positions] and we are comfortable.”

In a minority report co-signed by MP Odoi (West Budama North East, NRM) and his Kisoro Municipality counterpart Paul Kwizera, the duo noted that Bill was misconceived and would hamstring government’s efforts to tackle rights breaches in the country.

“The minority have examined the Bill and are of the considered opinion that the Bill is misconceived, it contains provisions that are unconstitutional, reverses the gains registered in the fight against gender-based violence and criminalises individuals,” Mr Odoi said, reading from their report.

He added: “Instead of conduct that contravenes legal provisions, the Bill does not introduce any value addition to the statute book and available legislative framework.”

He recommended that Parliament enacts a non-discriminatory Bill and any proposals should be scrutinised by the Law Reform Commission which in turn will advise the government on possible changes to laws on sexual offences.

In a rejoinder, Mr Bahati used Mr Odoi’s submission to rally more support for the legislation.

“If anybody had doubt on how deep this problem [of homosexuality] is in this country, the presence of Fox Odoi is confirmation that this problem is huge. That you can have a member of Parliament stand on the floor of Parliament of Uganda to say that it is okay for a man to marry a man…that is a confirmation that this problem is huge and, therefore, we must resolve it,” he said.

A deafening applause greeted his submission, with dozens of colleague lawmakers stamping their feet and banging seats.

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