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(Kampala) – Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, should veto the Anti-Homosexuality Bill passed by parliament on December 20, 2013, four Ugandan and international human rights organizations said today. The bill would increase penalties for some forms of consensual same-sex conduct between adults, curtail constitutionally protected rights to privacy, family life, and equality, and violate the rights to freedom of association and expression, the groups said.

East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Hivos, Human Rights Watch, and Sexual Minorities Uganda said that the bill’s passage constitutes a significant step backward for Uganda’s commitments to respect human rights. Uganda’s parliament had made some progress in the past two years addressing human rights concerns, for example by making torture a criminal offense.

“President Museveni should avoid the trap of scapegoating a vulnerable minority in the interests of short-term political gain,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “He should recognize that this repugnant bill is of no benefit to Ugandans – that it only serves to jeopardize basic rights – and reject it.”

Local activists in Uganda have said they would urge Museveni to veto the measure as unconstitutional. The bill, which was first introduced in 2009 by David Bahati, a member of parliament, appeared on Parliament’s Order Paper on December 20 with no advance warning. A text of the bill as approved is not yet available.

“We are outraged and disappointed that our MPs have expressed ignorance and intolerance by passing this bill,” said Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). “We shall work to challenge it through all avenues to prevent it from it from becoming law.”

The approved bill establishes life sentences for any form of penetration or sexual stimulation of a person of the same sex, as well as for “aggravated” homosexuality, which would apply to “serial offenders” among others, according to sources present during the parliamentary debate. Article 145 of the current penal code already punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” a colonial-era term understood to refer to sex between men, with life imprisonment. The new text would extend the punishment to sexual relations between women.

The bill further criminalizes the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality – an attack on the right to freedom of expression. Human rights groups and other organizations that seek to promote tolerance and put an end to violence on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as organizations providing health services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, could potentially be shut down, and their directors could face prison sentences.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled, in a November 2012 case concerning Russia, that prohibitions against the “propaganda of homosexuality” violate non-discrimination protections guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Uganda’s constitution, in article 29, contains strong protections for freedom of expression, conscience, and belief. The Ugandan Human Rights Commission, Uganda Law Society, and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative have all publicly criticized the Anti-Homosexuality Bill as unconstitutional.

The bill if enacted would frustrate efforts to effectively address HIV by driving LGBT people further underground. Government stakeholders admitted to “inadequate knowledge about sizes and population groups which has impacted effective programming” in implementing Uganda’s National HIV and AIDS Strategic Plan.

“It is disheartening that parliament has passed a bill that will prevent civil society from even discussing human rights, including the right to health, for LGBT people,” said Hassan Shire Sheikh, executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. “This bill sets a dangerous precedent by stifling dissent. If today it is those who support the rights of LGBT people, who will it be tomorrow?”

The bill imposes criminal penalties of life in prison for people of the same sex who “purport to contract a marriage.” This ban on private ceremonies would violate privacy rights as well as freedom of association, the groups said.

Ugandan LGBT activists have expressed concern that the bill could encourage vigilante violence. Knowing that they themselves face arrest and up to life in prison, LGBT individuals would be reluctant to report crimes against them.

Finally, the bill proposes to nullify Uganda’s international human rights obligations in cases in which they contradict the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. As the bill is inconsistent with the right of non-discrimination, among others, it would place Uganda in conflict with its human rights treaty obligations.

A group of Ugandan politicians and religious leaders has sought to manipulate public sentiment and mobilize popular support for the bill by propagating the false claim that LGBT people are   “recruiting” children into homosexuality.  The bill’s supporters have provided no evidence to justify claims of “recruitment.”

International donors to Uganda have been outspoken in their criticism of the bill since it was first presented in parliament. It is crucial for these donors to loudly and publicly condemn the bill and communicate their concerns to Museveni, the four organizations said.

“The bill is not about solving actual problems facing Uganda, but about institutionalizing discrimination,” said Roman Baatenburg, press officer at Hivos. “We strongly urge President Museveni to act in the interests of Ugandans by rejecting the bill and focusing on the real problems facing Uganda, such as poverty, corruption, and impunity.”

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