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Ugandan President Museveni hints he may not sign new anti-gay bill

Amid pressure from the United States and the United Nations, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has reportedly hinted that he may reject the recently passed Sexual Offences Bill 2019, which would extend criminal penalties for same-sex sexual contact.

In this photo from February 2014, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni signs 2013’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality BIil into law, despite protests from human rights advocates and Western governments. The law was overturned later that year by the Constitutional Court, which left intact the existing anti-gay provisions of Uganda’s penal code, including the unenforced provision of life sentences for consensual same-sex intimacy. (Photo courtesy of Reuters)

By Rob Salerno

Uganda’s Daily Monitor news site reports that sources close to the President say he will not sign the legislation, citing foreign policy implications. The source also says that since the President was recently elected, in January, he is under no political pressure to sign the bill into law.

The bill, which was passed by the Ugandan Parliament on May 3, would update sections of the country’s Penal Code regarding rape, sexual assault, and harassment. The bill has drawn international criticism for extending penalties against same-sex sexual activity. Although the bill would reduce the maximum sentence from life imprisonment to 10 years, human rights advocates fear that its explicit language targeting same-sex activities would lead to increased prosecution.

Convicted homosexuals would also be forced to register for life on a publicly searchable sex offenders registry.

On May 5, the US State Department publicly expressed concern over the legislation’s impact on the human rights of LGBT people. UNAIDS and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued statements condemning the bill’s anti-gay sections and calling for them to be amended.

“Such provisions not only violate Uganda’s human rights obligations and also risk undermining public health, leaving people afraid to come forward for essential testing and treatment, and so affecting critical HIV prevention and treatment efforts. They are also risking further fueling HIV in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa,” the statement from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says.

Same-sex sexual activities have been illegal in Uganda since the colonial era and carry penalties ranging from seven years to life imprisonment, under the Penal Code’s sections on “unnatural offences” and “indecent practices.”

Ugandan lawmakers have attempted several times to expand and clarify how these offences specifically relate to same-sex sexual activity. Most notorious was the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, which initially proposed the death penalty for homosexuality, but was passed into law in 2014 with the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. That law was struck down by the Constitutional Court on a technicality, and the government did not pursue further appeals, fearing more international condemnation.