World

American Organizations Sought Thousands Off Unsubstantiated Story Of Stoning Of LGBT Ugandans

American groups sent out a fundraising appeal over the weekend claiming LGBT people had been stoned to death. But Ugandan activists say there is no evidence that ever happened.

A participant at a Ugandan pride event, August 9, 2014. Stringer / Reuters

Ugandan LGBT rights activists are calling for a government investigation into claims made by two American organizations in a fundraising appeal that six LGBT people were stoned to death in rural Uganda last week.

The calls comes after the leading legal group working with LGBT people in Uganda, the Human Rights Awareness and Protection Forum (HRAPF), sent five investigators to the Buyende District where the attacks were alleged to have taken place — and found no evidence to substantiate the claims. The Ugandan activists said they felt the need to call for further investigation because the American organizations sent out their fundraising appeal even after being told that the claims don’t hold up, a publicity campaign that attracted the attention of government authorities and local reporters.

“This has turned out very sensitive here,” said Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda in an email to other LGBT activists shared with BuzzFeed. Anti-LGBT activists in Uganda have long alleged that LGBT people are exaggerating the dangers in the country in order to extract money from Western donors, and this case appears to provide perfect ammunition.

“Since the people behind the story stand [behind] it, we have decided to ask the higher authorities in the Ugandan police to investigate,” Mugisha said.

The alleged incident was publicized in a an urgent fundraising appeal for $5,500 dated August 16 for the Friends New Underground Railroad, an initiative affiliated with a Quaker congregation in Olympia, Washington that has been raising money since April to help LGBT Ugandans flee anti-LGBT violence in the country. Their appeal went out on joint letterhead with the Safe Passage Fund, a separate fundraising project started this spring by the American journalist Anne-Christine d’Adesky that has been supporting the Railroad’s work. Overall, the Railroad has raised and spent more than $40,000 in this work, its organizers say.

The release claimed “several Ugandan activists” had told the group that five LGBT people were stoned to death over the previous week in an unspecified “rural zone of the country.” A sixth was said to have burned to death after surviving being stoned, while a seventh person died of head trauma in a separate mob attack.

The stoning claim, in particular, triggered immediate skepticism among human rights activists working in the country. While Uganda is a dangerous country for LGBT people, stonings are virtually unheard of. The story seemed to play more to stereotypes about anti-LGBT violence in Africa and elsewhere than to the reality of threats facing LGBT people in Uganda.

“There are cases of mob justice [in Uganda], but its not usually an organized stoning like in the Bible and in Nigeria,” said Adrian Jjuuko, executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, a legal organization that handles many LGBT rights cases and lead the legal task force of organizations during the suit that led to the defeat of Uganda’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act in the Constitutional Court on August 1. “That’s how I first smelled a rat, that maybe is something is not right.”

Jjuuko’s organization dispatched a team of three lawyers and two paralegals to investigate the attacks on August 13 after learning of the attacks from the organizers of the Friends New Underground Railroad. The investigators went to the Buyende District, about a two-hour drive to the west of the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Even before they left, they discovered one of the towns where the attacks were said to take place did not exist in government records, and found none of the locals had heard of it when they arrived. Police in the two towns they visited reported no murders of any adults in the previous week — the only known murder in that period was a case of a one-year-old child killed by its mother. No one except that child had been buried in the area, either. They asked people on the street and the drivers of the motorcycle taxis that are Ugandan’s major form of daily transportation whether they’d heard of mob attacks, and they could only recall a case that was around a year old in which a man had been beaten when he tried to build on top of a community well.

With no leads, Jjuuko wrote in an email summarizing the investigation to other LGBT activists, his organization “has decided to put this at rest.” But, he continued, because the Friends New Underground Railroad’s organizers “has issued a press release on the incident [and] they seem to imply that they still stand by their story …. we have brought this to the intention of the police leadership and we hope they will take on the investigation from this stage.”

While the Friends New Underground Railroad’s organizers did provide some information about the attacks — including photographs purported to be of the victims — Jjuuko wrote that his effort was hampered by their unwillingness to cooperate. “None of those who claimed that this took place agreed to share any contacts of witnesses with the team,” Jjuuko wrote. “Indeed they were even hostile that HRAPF had decided to intervene.”

Friends New Underground Railroad’s coordinators would not provide any additional information despite repeated requests from BuzzFeed to substantiate the claims of the attacks. Sharing information beyond that contained in the fundraising appeal might expose their “conductors” or other LGBT Ugandans they work with to further danger, said one of the group’s coordinators, Gabi Clayton.

“I understand that it is an unsubstantiated hate crime, and I don’t know what to tell you except that we’re going to release information as we’re asked, but we can’t do that now because we’re protecting peoples lives,” Clayton said in a phone interview from Washington.

Friends New Underground Railroad has operated in extreme secrecy since it emerged in April, causing concerns among human rights activists with experience in Uganda. The group’s only organizer with experience in international relief work would not reveal his real name even to Ugandan activists, taking the name of one of the Quakers active in the American South before the Civil War, Levi Coffin II. Coffin said that this was because his other work would be jeopardized if he was linked to LGBT rights work.

In an email exchange obtained by BuzzFeed, Coffin told Jjuuko that he would not provide the contact information of any witnesses to the alleged stonings, though the group has also expressed frustration that human rights organizations are not taking their reports of violence seriously.

“Let me make this clear: none of you, not even [Anne-Christine d’Adesky of the Safe Passage Fund] will have any direct contact through us with any of our conductors. Security risks are far too great,” Coffin said wrote on August 12. He also said he would not put Jjuuko’s investigators in touch with the witnesses to the alleged stoning.

“The contacts were all in agreement that they will not talk with you, nor meet with you,” Coffin wrote. “One said he would take you on a tour to the place when he believes it is safe to do so. Which is not now. There are far too many people in hiding in this area.”

But the emphasis on extreme secrecy strikes Ugandan activists as odd. Americans, none of whom have ever worked in Uganda, are telling Ugandans that they have a greater awareness of the dangers than the activists who live and work there.

“That crisis that has been created — that there is so much of a security crisis that gays are being beaten at every corner — that one, I can assure you that that is a complete lie,” said Jjuuko.

Now Ugandan activists want this matter cleared up as fast as possible.

“It’s making us look really bad,” said Clare Byarugaba, co-coordinator of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, the network opposing anti-LGBT legislation in the country.

“It’s very problematic for us as a community” Byarugaba said, to look like “we are forwarding cases to make the government look bad and to raise money from the US and all these other countries.”

update

This post has been changed to provide more details about the Friends New Underground Railroad’s fundraising.

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J. Lester Feder is a foreign correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. Feder reports on global LGBT issues.
Contact this reporter at lester.feder@buzzfeed.com
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