Many LGBT rights supporters inside the Ugandan Constitutional Court this week say there are strong signs that the justices will strike down the Anti-Homosexuality Act when the court reconvenes on Friday at 9:30 a.m. local time.
That may sound surprising, since the Ugandan political system has seemed stacked against LGBT people since legislation imposing up to a lifetime prison sentence for homosexuality was enacted in a surprise vote on December 20, 2013.
And yet, the court has aggressively pushed forward with hearing the case over the government's objections during the first day of hearings, which has left LGBT rights supporters feeling confident.
"I am very optimistic that they will strike it down," said Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda. "In my opinion having been in court for the past two days, I think the judges are being very independent."
Nicholas Opiyo, one of the attorneys for the group of ten human rights activists, opposition politicians, and legal scholars challenging the law, also felt very heartened after the first day of hearings concluded on Wednesday.
The Constitutional Court announced late last week that it would begin hearing the case on Wednesday, which caught attorneys on both sides by surprise.
The lawyer for the government, Patricia Mutesi, strenuously objected saying she was not prepared to proceed with arguments, but the five justices unanimously rejected her motion for delay. They also refused to stay their order to proceed so she could have time to appeal to the Supreme Court for more time.
This is unusual haste from a judicial system where trials are routinely delayed for months or years.
"This is expeditious by any standard, but by a Ugandan standard they're moving at the speed of light," said one person in the court room.
This speed had the law's supporters, like pastor and anti-LGBT activist Martin Ssempa, worried.
Though the petitioners have asked the court to strike down the anti-LGBT law because it violates fundamental right protections in the Ugandan constitution, the court has said it will decide on a procedural challenge to the law before taking up that issue. House Speaker Rebecca Kadaga ignored a quorum call by Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi when she moved the bill for a vote on December 20. Without a quorum, the petitioners argue, the bill was not lawfully passed.
The court adjourned after the government rebutted this argument on Thursday by claiming the petitioners had not shown any proof that a quorum was absent. The judges said they would rule on this question on Friday morning.
If the court strikes the law down because it was passed without a quorum, it's an open question whether Mutesi would pursue an appeal of the decision to hold the hearing. Another threat is that parliament could pass the bill again.
But that's unlikely, say many LGBT rights activists. Under the rules of parliament, lawmakers couldn't just put the bill back up for a vote, say Uganda watchers. They'd have to start the legislative process from the beginning, including committee hearings and getting statement of the legislation's financial impact. If President Yoweri Museveni wants to prevent the bill from getting back to his desk — or if international donors lean on him hard enough to do so — that would be an ideal way to kill it quietly. His finance minister issues the financial certification, and it could block the bill simply by stalling on releasing it.
Rumors are flying around Kampala in an effort to make sense of the court's sudden haste in this case.
There is speculation that it was ordered to strike down the law by President Yoweri Museveni in order to please the World Bank — which is holding up a $90 million loan over the bill — or to satisfy the United States in advance of next week's Summit of African Leaders in Washington. Others suggest the court is trying to bolster Prime Minister Mbabazi by validating his call for a quorum; Museveni moved aggressively shortly after the vote to isolate Mbabazi to prevent him from mounting a leadership challenge.
Martin Ssempa and his supporters allege judges are being bribed behind the scenes using money from abroad:
The trial is bringing the two sides into close quarters. This picture shows anti-LGBT activist Martin Ssempa introducing his son to Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda.
J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. His secure PGP fingerprint is 2353 DB68 8AA6 92BD 67B8 94DF 37D8 0A6F D70B 7211
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Sarah Karlan is the Deputy LGBT Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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