Uganda government softens propsed anti-gay law

KAMPALA Wed Dec 23, 2009 10:55am EST

Members of religious groups campaigning against homosexuality hold placards during a rally in Kampala, August 21, 2007. REUTERS/James Akena

Members of religious groups campaigning against homosexuality hold placards during a rally in Kampala, August 21, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/James Akena

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda will soften its proposed anti-gay legislation, but the government denied on Wednesday that it was bowing to an outcry in the West over a controversial bill that could have seen homosexuals put to death.

Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo told Reuters that the revised law would now probably limit the maximum penalty for offenders to life in prison rather than execution.

"There have been a lot of discussions in government ... regarding the proposed law, but we now think a life sentence could be better because it gives room for offenders to be rehabilitated," he said in an interview.

"Killing them might not be helpful."

Uganda, long a darling of donors for its stable economy and widespread economic reforms, has come under intense pressure from Western nations to ease its anti-gay stance.

Under the original proposal "serial offenders", and those who commit "aggravated homosexuality", faced a death sentence.

Now the east African nation appears to have heeded condemnation from Western governments as well as international Christian and community leaders.

Buturo denied the change in government attitude had been forced by Western censure. "It's really out of our consultation with various groups, including religious leaders. It has nothing to do with external forces," he said.

Uganda had not changed its view that homosexuality was a "moral perversion that must not be allowed to spread", he added.

ANTI-GAY PROTESTS

On Wednesday anti-gay protesters marched through the streets of the capital Kampala, shouting slogans and waving placards.

A local independent newspaper, the Daily Monitor, reported that President Yoweri Museveni had assured U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson by telephone recently that he would block the anti-gay bill.

The proposed law had threatened to divide African and Western Christians, as attitudes in some African countries have hardened against same-sex unions, while most Western communities are becoming increasingly tolerant.

Debate on the bill, which is now before a parliamentary committee, is scheduled to begin early next year when members of parliament return from their Christmas holiday.

On Wednesday, the main global grouping of Christian churches published a letter it had sent to Museveni urging the former rebel leader to bar the proposed legislation.

The Kenyan general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) said the bill would run against basic Christian teaching by promoting hatred.

"From the experience of many nations, it is very clear that if such a bill is enacted into law, it will leave a lot of room for manipulation, abuse, blackmail and oppression of people," wrote the WCC chief, Samuel Kobia, a Methodist.

The WCC groups Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and other churches representing more than 560 million believers in some 110 countries. Although many members are critical of homosexuality, none are known to support the Ugandan bill.