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Ugandan court strikes down anti-gay legislation

4 min

Uganda's constitutional court on Friday overturned harsh new law against homosexuality that had been strongly criticised by rights groups, saying the measure had been passed by parliament without the necessary quorum.


The law is "null and void", the presiding judge told the court, saying the passage of the measure had contravened the constitution by being voted on without the necessary quorum of lawmakers present at the December parliamentary session.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni in February, sentenced those convicted of "aggravated homosexuality" of up to life in prison or seven years for "aiding and abetting homosexuality". It also obliged Ugandans to denounce gays to the authorities.

The 10 petitioners – including two Ugandan rights organisations – claimed that the law violated the constitutional right to privacy and dignity, as well as the right to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

"Justice prevailed – we won," said lawyer Nicholas Opiyo, who led the challenge at the constitutional court.

But the law's supporters said they will appeal the ruling at the Supreme Court.

Still illegal

Homosexuality remains illegal in Uganda and is still punishable by jail sentences under previous legislation. Homophobia is widespread, and gay men and women face frequent harassment and sometimes fatal attacks.

Tabloids have been known to publish the names of those they allege are homosexuals and gay sympathisers, exposing them to the threat of violence. A prominent Ugandan gay rights activist whose picture was published in 2011 by an anti-gay newspaper next to the words “Hang Them” was bludgeoned to death.

Western nations made a raft of aid cuts to Uganda's government in protest since the law was passed. Washington froze some aid programmes, as well as cancelling military air exercises and barring entry to the US for specific Ugandan officials involved in "human rights abuses", including against the gay community.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has likened the law to the anti-Semitic legislation seen in Nazi Germany.

'The law is intact'

Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said the law remains valid, saying it had been struck down on a matter of procedure and not over its content.

"The ruling has not nullified the anti-homosexuality law, it only ruled on the validity of the procedure in parliament," he said.

David Bahati, the MP who introduced the bill – which initially proposed the death penalty as punishment – said he still backed the law.

"It is a setback but not a major one, because the law is intact," he told AFP.

"The law is good for Uganda, no matter what [the] court decides."

Critics have said Museveni signed the law to win domestic support ahead of a presidential election scheduled for 2016, which will be his 30th year in power.

The judges stuck down the law based only on the the issue of quorum, and lawmakers could seek to reintroduce the bill back into parliament.

'A very long battle'

But gay rights activists were celebrating nonetheless.

"The retrogressive anti-homosexuality act of Uganda has been struck down by the constitutional court – it's now dead as a door nail," said Andrew Mwenda, one of the petitioners.

"I am no longer criminal; today we have made history for generations to come," said Kasha Jacqueline, another petitioner and a prominent gay rights activist.

"I am officially legal," said Frank Mugisha, another petitioner. But he admitted that despite the celebratory mood, today's ruling was only the "beginning of a very long battle".

"The law has been struck on technicalities, so the big picture is still there," he said.

Rights groups, who said the law had triggered a sharp increase in arrests and assaults of members of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, also welcomed the decision.

"We are pleased that this law cannot be enforced and entrench further abuses and discrimination," said Maria Burnett from Human Rights Watch.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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