Living in a shelter for homeless people shouldn’t be illegal. But according to Ugandan police, 23 people arrested on March 29 living at a shelter serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Kampala are guilty of “a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease,” as well as “disobedience of lawful orders.”
Police were presumably enforcing presidential directives to combat the spread of COVID-19, including one prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people. The homeless youth were indoors at a shelter in Nsangi, near Kampala, run by the nongovernmental organization Children of the Sun Foundation. No order limits the number of residents in a private home or shelter.
Two were released from police custody for medical reasons, as was a nurse who worked at the shelter’s clinic. But 20 were remanded to prison, a disastrous move when civil society leaders have been pleading with officials to decongest Uganda’s teeming prisons.
At the root of the arrests is homophobia. According to the legal aid group Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), neighbors complained to local leaders about the presumed sexuality of shelter residents, prompting the mayor, Hajj Abdul Kiyimba, to lead a raid on the home. A video viewed by Human Rights Watch shows Kiyimba berating residents for “homosexuality” and beating them with a stick.
HRAPF said police searched the shelter for evidence of homosexuality, which is punishable by up to life in prison. Police confiscated HIV medication, self-testing kits, and condoms. At least three of those arrested were undergoing HIV treatment at the shelter. Police eventually settled on COVID-19-related charges.
The arrests echo an October 2019 raid on another LGBT shelter, where police arrested 16 people after they were attacked by a mob, detained them, and subjected them to forced anal examinations. The case against them was eventually dropped.
The Children of the Sun detainees may be less fortunate. Their lawyers can’t visit them in prison – Uganda’s latest COVID-19 guidelines only allow movement for “essential services,” which do not include legal services. Indeed, HRAPF’s application to visit them was rejected by the Ministry of Works and Transport. In the meantime, the detainees may be exposed to COVID-19 in prison. If any become ill or die, the Ugandan authorities will bear responsibility.