(New York) – A Ugandan minister illegally shut down a leadership training workshop organized by activists advocating for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, Human Rights Watch said today. The February 14, 2012 raid on a peaceful gathering violates rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
Uganda’s minister for ethics and integrity, Simon Lokodo, personally shut down a training held by Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG) taking place at an Entebbe hotel. Lokodo claimed that the group’s activities were against “tradition,” closed the workshop, and dispersed the 35 participants. No laws in Uganda permit the shutting down of peaceful meetings, including of LGBT people.
“It’s illegal for a Ugandan government minister to shut down a human rights meeting just because he doesn’t like the subject matter,” said Maria Burnett, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This is just the latest step in a general decline in civil liberties in Uganda, where those who express divergent viewpoints are increasingly silenced – in clear violation of the law.”
Lokodo, accompanied by his police escort, appeared at the gathering in the hotel and declared it illegal after inspecting workshop materials. Participants told Human Right Watch that Lokodo threatened to arrest organizer Kasha Jacqueline Nabagasera, a prominent LGBT rights activist and winner of the 2011 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, after she challenged the minister’s order to disband the meeting. Nabagasera fled the hotel and is currently in a safe location.
The raid comes a week after Ugandan member of parliament David Bahati reintroduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The bill would criminalize the legitimate work of national and international activists and organizations working for the defense and promotion of human rights in Uganda by criminalizing the “promotion of homosexuality.” Critics have raised concerns that such provisions would be used as a pretext for clamping down on organizations that support basic human rights for LGBT people.
A day after the bill was reintroduced, Lokodo put out a statement on behalf of the government. He said the bill “does not form part of the government’s legislative programme and it does not enjoy the support of the Prime Minister or the Cabinet.… Whilst the government of Uganda does not support this bill, it is required under our constitution to facilitate this debate. The facilitation of this debate should not be confused for the government’s support for this bill.”
“Uganda’s government is right to oppose the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, but sadly the honorable Lokodo’s actions in raiding an NGO meeting speak louder than his words,” Burnett said.
While Bahati has said he intends to remove a provision calling for the death penalty for some consensual homosexual acts, the text of the proposed bill has not changed. The bill has been widely criticized by human rights organizations and Uganda’s diplomatic partners. US President Barack Obama called the bill “odious” in 2010. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni publicly distanced himself from the bill, and Parliament refrained from bringing it to a vote in 2010 and 2011.
In recent months, Uganda has taken other measures to silence dissenting voices and close down space for freedom of expression and assembly. These have included repeated arrests of opposition political leaders. In April 2011, in response to protests over the rising costs of commodities and the arrest of opposition leaders, including Dr. Kizza Besigye, Ugandan police and military fired on unarmed protestors, killing at least nine. Forty people were killed by security forces during two days of protests in Kampala in September 2009.
“This raid shows that freedom of assembly in Uganda is under assault – with vulnerable communities, such as LGBT people, among the first victims,” said Burnett. “The government should apologize for the raid and assure human rights activists that their activities will no longer be subject to random, unlawful interference.”