By Ashley “Ash” Pria Persaud
The High Court of Uganda awarded damages of UGX 5,000,000 (about US$1,340) to 20 homeless gay, bisexual, and transgender people who had been arbitrarily detained and held without access to their lawyers.
Their arrests had occurred in response to complaints about their sexual identities.
On June 15, the court ruled that the prison system’s refusal to allow the 20 people access to counsel violated their rights to a fair hearing and to liberty. The 20 people, who were residents of the Children of the Sun Foundation (COSF) shelter, had been detained for over 6 weeks without access to lawyers.
Human Rights Watch reported on the arrests and, on May 11, sent the director of public prosecutions, Jane Abodo, an open letter calling for dismissal of the charges. Abodo, in acknowledging receipt of the letter, pledged to work to rectify the situation that Human Rights Watch had highlighted. The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions did withdraw the charges, and on May 18, the Nsangi Magistrate’s Court ordered the release of the 20 detainees who had been taken from the shelter.
The 13 gay men, 4 transgender women, and 3 bisexual men were arrested on March 29, when the mayor of Nsangi led a raid on a shelter for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in response to neighbors’ complaints about the residents’ gender expression. Police first searched the shelter for evidence of homosexual activity, which is punishable by up to life in prison in Uganda. During the search, police confiscated HIV medication, self-testing kits, and condoms. Police then charged the residents with “a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease” as well as “disobedience of lawful orders.”
At the time, police appeared to be invoking presidential directives to combat the spread of Covid-19 as justification, including one prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people. However, no order limits the number of residents in a private home or shelter.
The “COSF-20,” as the 20 were nicknamed, were represented by lawyers from the Kampala-based legal aid group Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF). HRAPF said some of the COSF-20 suffered torture, ill-treatment, and possible exposure to Covid-19 while detained. HRAPF has filed a complaint with the commissioner general of Uganda’s prison system about one prison officer who allegedly personally participated in or oversaw the beating and burning of some of the COSF-20 – abuses that were based on their perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.
The arrests echoed an October 2019 raid on another LGBT shelter in the area, when police arrested 16 people who had been attacked by a mob. After detaining the LGBT people, police subjected them to forced anal examinations. The charges against those victims were eventually dropped as well.
Our research shows that the Covid-19 crisis has exposed and exacerbated the inequality, violence, and abuse LGBT people face on a regular basis. Human Rights Watch remains committed to supporting HRAPF in its quest for justice for LGBT victims of human rights violations in Uganda and to investigating, exposing, and changing the draconian laws that are used as grounds for mistreatment towards LGBT people.