KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Gay Ugandans likely won’t face the death penalty after the president said he opposed the provision in proposed legislation, but an international gay rights group said Thursday even a watered-down bill would be repressive.
President Yoweri Museveni has told colleagues he believes the bill is too harsh and has encouraged his ruling National Resistance Movement Party to overturn the death sentence provision, which would apply to sexually active gays living with HIV or in cases of same-sex rape according to a copy of the draft law.
The proposed bill, though, says anyone convicted of a homosexual act — which includes touching someone of the same sex with the intent of committing a homosexual act — would face life imprisonment. It is unclear whether Museveni supports that provision or not.
Gay rights activists say the bill, introduced in the fall of 2009, promotes hatred and could set back efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in the conservative East African country. Protests already have been held in London, New York and Washington.
London-based gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell said even if the death penalty is removed from the bill, it will still contradict several major international conventions on human rights, which could cause donors to reduce their aid to Uganda.
The new bill, he said, builds on Uganda’s prohibitions against homosexuality by including Ugandans living abroad and by expanding the definition of homosexual acts to include touching. The draft law stipulates that Ugandans abroad can be extradited and punished.
“Even a softened bill will be extremely repressive and discriminatory,” Tatchell told The Associated Press. “Even before this new law, homosexual relations were punishable by life imprisonment and there was widespread homophobic discrimination and mob violence. The status quo won’t change.”
A top minister suggested scrapping the death penalty in favor of counseling.
“The death penalty is likely to be removed,” said James Nsaba Buturo, Uganda’s minister of state for ethics and integrity. “The president doesn’t believe in killing gays. I also don’t believe in it. I think gays can be counseled and they stop the bad habit.”
Ruling party spokeswoman Mary Karoro Okurut said she also agrees with the president that some punishments in the bill should be dropped. But she said she will still push for a modified version of the bill when it comes to parliament in late February or early March.
“Although the president is against some parts of the bill, the bill has to stay,” she said. “(Homosexuality) is not allowed in African culture. We have to protect the children in schools who are being recruited into homosexual activities.”
Frank Mugisha, leader of Sex Minorities Uganda, said the gay-rights group will campaign for and support Museveni in the 2011 polls because of his opposition to the bill’s harsher provisions.
“If one scratches your back you also scratch his back,” Mugisha said. “Museveni’s action shows that he is a true democrat. As a head of state he is doing the right thing of protecting all interests of its citizens, including those of the minorities.”
Tatchell said he was “very surprised” that the Ugandan group would endorse the president, whose government banned same-sex marriage in 2005.
“Museveni is using gay people as a scapegoat just as Mugabe did in Zimbabwe and Hitler did in Germany,” he said. “It’s an easy way to deflect public attention away from the Ugandan government’s failure to tackle poverty and human rights abuses.”
The measure was proposed in Uganda following a visit by leaders of U.S. conservative Christian ministries that promote therapy for gays to become heterosexual. However, at least one of those leaders has denounced the bill, as have some other conservative and liberal Christians in the United States.
On the African continent, South Africa is the only country that allows gay marriage. However, some South African groups have rejected homosexuality as “un-African” and gangs carry out so-called “corrective” rapes on lesbians. A 19-year-old lesbian athlete was gang-raped, tortured and murdered in 2008.
The Catholic church in Uganda has said it supports the bill but not the death penalty provision. But a group of non-traditional churches has accused Museveni of siding with gays and maintains that the Bible supports killing gays. Anglican Archbishop of York John Sentamu, who is one of the global fellowship’s most senior priests, has said he condemns the proposed law in his native country.
Associated Press Writer Anita Powell contributed to this report from Johannesburg.