Ugandan LGBTI community left vulnerable in pandemic lockdown

Samuel OkirorThursday 10 September 2020

In late March, 20 members of Uganda’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community were arrested, detained and spent over 50 days on remand in prison, after allegedly disobeying the country’s Covid-19 lockdown rules. Campaigners say the charges were motivated by homophobia in this conservative East African country, and are further evidence that Uganda’s lockdown regulations are being misused.

The group were living together at a shelter for homeless members of the LGBTI community run by the Children of the Sun Foundation (COSF). They were accused of flouting Uganda’s ban on mass gatherings, specifically that they disobeyed rules on social distancing.

Henry Mukiibi is Executive Director of the COSF and was among those arrested. He tells Global Insight that during their arrests, the group were tortured, abused and repeatedly beaten. ‘They tied us together with ropes and flogged us,’ he says.

The general environment of repression created during the lockdown [has] allowed state agencies to harass LGBT persons as all [measures] could be said to be enforcement of the lockdown

Dr Adrian Jjuuko
Executive Director, Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum

The group was later charged with ‘doing a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease.’ However, all charges were subsequently dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mukiibi claims that initially, the police told the group that they had been arrested for being members of the LGBTI community. ‘The police spokesperson later in a statement said we were arrested for defying presidential directives on Covid-19 and social distancing guidelines.’

In late July, the group filed a lawsuit before the Civil Division of the High Court in Kampala, seeking redress for their alleged ‘torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, discrimination and violation of privacy’.

The lawsuit has been filed against the Deputy Officer in charge of Kitalya prison where the group were held, Philimon Woniala; the Ugandan Attorney General, William Byaruhanga; and a chairman of Kyengera Town Council, Hajji Abdul Kiyimba, who it’s claimed spearheaded the raid on the COSF shelter.

The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), a legal organisation, is representing the group in their lawsuit. According to a statement from the HRAPF, the group endured a myriad of forms of violence while being held, ranging from flogging and scalding to denial of access to food, sanitary facilities and medication.

‘We have sued them to seek redress and serve as a warning to those who violate human rights, discrimination and violation of privacy, says Mukiibi. ‘Being […] LGBTI isn’t a crime.’

Frank Baine, the Uganda Prison Services spokesperson, speaking in defence of Philimon Woniala, calls the allegations ‘blatant lies’. Speaking to Global Insight, he asks ‘Why would one want to torture them? What is the justification?’

‘There are over 3,000 people [inmates] in Kitalya prison, why select the 20?’ continues Baine. ‘Fortunately even the [alleged body torture] marks they are talking [about], we normally record those with [scars] marks on admission.’

‘We shall meet them in court and prove that nobody tortured them,’ adds Baine.

Simon Peter Jamba, a public relations officer at Uganda’s Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, acknowledges that the Office of the Attorney General has been served with the lawsuit. ‘We are prepared for and we shall participate in the hearing,’ says Jamba. Kyengera Town Council did not respond to Global Insight’s request for comment.

Ugandan non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activists have documented instances that they claim show Ugandan authorities misusing the strict Covid-19 ‘stay-home’ orders issued by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to unfairly and disproportionately target members of the LGBTI community.

‘The LGBTIQ community has been immensely affected by the lockdown especially when it comes to government-imposed homophobia,’ says Phyllis Wanjiru, Communications Officer at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), an NGO.

‘The general environment of repression created during the lockdown [has] allowed state agencies to harass LGBT persons as all [measures] could be said to be enforcement of the lockdown,’ adds Dr Adrian Jjuuko, Executive Director of HRAPF.

Asia Russell is Executive Director at Health GAP, an international advocacy organisation. She believes that the Ugandan government’s response to Covid-19 has included a lockdown that has ‘completely undermined health and human rights in Uganda’ and further that ‘this misstep was completely unnecessary and has resulted in preventable suffering and death.’

Russell highlights that people living with HIV in Uganda have experienced massive shortages and stockouts of medicines for themselves and their children.

The United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the arrests of the COSF shelter residents echo an October 2019 raid on another nearby LGBTI shelter, when police arrested 16 people who had been attacked by a mob. The charges were eventually dropped in that case, too.

‘The arrests point to a deeper problem: LGBT people in Uganda are officially second class citizens under the law, subject to up to life in prison based on their private sexual conduct,’ says Neela Ghoshal, Senior Researcher in the LGBT Rights program at HRW. ‘This institutionalised discrimination leads police and local officials […] to believe that LGBT people are fair game for all manner of human rights violations.’

Ghoshal points to a colonial-era law under which gay sex in Uganda is punishable with life imprisonment. ‘Uganda should repeal the law that criminalises consensual same-sex conduct and should adopt measures protecting LGBT people from discrimination instead of subjecting them to it.’

Nankunda Katangaza, Vice-Chair of the IBA African Regional Forum, says the lockdown restrictions have given an excuse for authoritarian governments to unleash their security services to clamp down on those forced to live on the margins of societies.

‘The Uganda government, among many others, has deployed unwarranted force to enforce the lockdowns, more often than not inflicting the most damage to vulnerable groups in society and this includes LGBT communities,’ says Katangaza.

‘This is, of course, unacceptable and has served to exacerbate the economic hardships that many are already experiencing due to the lockdowns and curfews imposed over the last few months that have taken away livelihoods and opportunities overnight,’ she adds.

Wanjiru of SMUG tells Global Insight that ‘elevated financial and livelihood hardship means that many LGBTIQ+ people have had to move in and quarantine with their families. This has entailed having to go back into the closet or facing homophobia from their families in the form of physical and emotional violence.’

‘When you ask people to stay home […] for many LGBT persons, “home” is where violations and violence take place, and again for many, they have to work every day on menial jobs to eke out a living,’ says HRAPF’s Jjuuko.

‘As such they were among the people mainly affected by the curfew regulations as they had to be out there,’ adds Jjuuko. ‘That is why, when imposing regulations, the state has to take a human rights-based approach which considers how the most vulnerable will be affected.’