If a trial that was due to start today in Uganda had proceeded on schedule, it would have been the first time Ugandans had been tried for homosexuality.
That’s not just under the country’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act — that’s in all of Uganda’s modern history, according to Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), the group organizing the defense of the two facing charges. Uganda has had a law on the books criminalizing “unnatural offenses” defined as “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature” since 1890, when it was a colony of Great Britain. Even under that law, no LGBT people went on trial in Uganda’s modern history.
The trial of 24-year-old Kim Mukisa and 19-year-old Jackson Mukasa was pushed back Wednesday to June 12, HRAPF Executive Director Adrian Jjuuko told BuzzFeed, because witnesses for the prosecution were not in court. Instead, the two were finally able to secure bail after having been held since their arrest in late January, a month before the Anti-Homosexuality Act became law.
Because they were arrested before the new law — which criminalizes even the “intent to commit homosexuality” and also makes it a crime to promote LGBT rights — went into effect, the two are being tried under the colonial-era unnatural offenses provision. But the trial is significant, Jjuuko said in a phone interview from Kampala, because it marks a turning point in how Uganda’s laws against homosexuality are used against LGBT people. Before, sodomy cases didn’t wind up in court, he said, because police primarily used charges to extort bribes or blackmail people believed to be LGBT.
Under the natural offenses provision, Mukisa and Mukasa face a maximum sentence of life in prison. They may have an easier time disputing the charges, however, since the old law doesn’t define what constitutes an “act against the order of nature,” unlike the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which goes into great detail about what acts constitute “the offense of homosexuality,” including the “penetration [of] the anus or mouth of another person of the same sex with his penis or any sexual contraption” or touching “a person of the same sex with the intention of committing homosexuality.”
Mukisa and Mukasa are just one of several Ugandans who are now waiting to go before the courts, swept up by police as anti-LGBT sentiment became widespread as the law approached final passage.
With the new law focusing widespread attention on the issue, people are now being brought before the courts — several other cases may be headed to trial now that the law is in effect. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, along with other lawmakers and religious leaders, have cast the fight against homosexuality through events like a thanksgiving service to “celebrate” the bill’s passage, further whipping up anti-LGBT sentiment.
Police have are also exercising wide latitude in enforcing the law, which also criminalizes “abetting” homosexuality by provide services to LGBT people. In a case that especially alarmed LGBT and public health advocates, police raided an HIV clinic affiliated with the U.S. Military HIV Program in the Ugandan capital after a weeks-long undercover investigation into claims the center was “carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sexual acts.”
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