Uganda activists, lecturers and others fight harsh anti-LGBT law in court

KAMPALA (Reuters) -Uganda’s Constitutional Court on Monday began hearing a challenge to an anti-LGBT law that carries the death penalty for certain same-sex acts and 20 years in prison for “promoting” homosexuality.

The Anti-Homosexuality Act (AHA) was signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni in May, prompting U.S. and World Bank sanctions.

In a brief session, a panel of five judges received written submissions from both parties and the head of the panel, Richard Buteera, told the petitioners they would be notified when a ruling was ready.

“We hope the court will take the opportunity to address the question in the room, whether the Ugandan constitution protects every single member of our society irrespective of their sexual orientation,” Nicholas Opiyo, a lawyer for the petitioners, told reporters after the court session.

The case was of “national importance”, Opiyo said, and the petitioners hoped there could be a ruling by the end of the year.

“Our evidence includes a lot of chilling testimonies by victims of this law showing how it has affected their lives,” he said, adding all evidence was submitted in written form.

The petitioners argue that the law violates constitutionally guaranteed rights and that there was no sufficient public consultation and participation in the process of its enactment, Opiyo said.

At least five people have been charged under the law so far, including two for the capital offence of “aggravated homosexuality”, which includes transmitting a terminal illness to someone through gay sex.

LGBT rights activists say the AHA has also led to a surge in abuse, including torture, rape and evictions, against some Ugandans by private citizens.

The government has dismissed this as “propaganda” and says the law reflects the values of the conservative and highly religious East African country.

“The livelihoods of LGBTQ Ugandans hang on the outcome of this case,” said Frank Mugisha, a prominent rights activist and one of the petitioners in the case, alongside other activists, a lawmaker, university lecturers and private individuals.

“We filed a very strong case and expect to win, but we are also aware that anti-gay groups in Uganda have a lot of momentum and they might sway judges with their theories and propaganda.”

The defendants included Uganda’s attorney general as well as a Christian pastor, whom the court granted the status of co-defendant last week.

Same-sex intercourse has been illegal in Uganda – as it is in more than 30 African countries – for decades under a British colonial-era statute.

The United States imposed travel restrictions on some Ugandan officials and suspended the country’s access to a duty-free trade programme in response to the law, while the World Bank halted all new loans.

(Editing by Aaron Ross and George Obulutsa; Editing by Nick Macfie)