Botswana's High Court postpones decision in gay sex case

GABORONE (Reuters) - Botswana’s High Court on Thursday postponed its ruling on a case challenging the criminalization of gay sex, which is being scrutinized by campaigners hoping the law could be overturned.

Judge Abednico Tafa told a packed courtroom in Botswana’s capital Gaborone that a decision would be handed down on June 11 after a one-day hearing.

Gesego Lekgowe, lawyer for Letsweletse Motshidiemang, named in court as bringing the case, argued the government should do away with the law in light of a changed society where homosexuality was more widely accepted.

“When the laws were put in place... society was not ready to accept same sex relations,” he told the court, adding that now there was a song about homosexuality that was well-loved in Botswana.

Recent rulings have partially acknowledged the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) people in the southern African country, and President Mokgweetsi Masisi has signaled his support for same-sex relations.

However homosexuality remains highly contentious on across Africa, and Sidney Pilane, lawyer for the state, challenged his opponents to provide concrete evidence attitudes in Botswana had changed.

“The law should reflect on the values of society. As far as I know there haven’t been any changes in society toward gay people,” Pilane said.

The case offers the chance of a rare victory for African LGBT rights campaigners. Members of the LGBT community attended the court in large numbers, holding up placards that said “Stigma must fall” and “My bedroom my privacy”.

One group admitted as a friend of the court - Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals of Botswana - argued via their lawyer that it was degrading for parliament to intrude on what happens in private between consenting adults.

Same-sex relationships are illegal in more than 70 countries worldwide; almost half of them in Africa, where homosexuality is broadly taboo and persecution is rife.

Botswana’s penal code outlaws “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”, with those convicted facing up to seven years in prison, as well as “indecent practices between persons” in public or private, punishable with up to two years in prison.

In 2017, a transgender woman won a legal battle against Botswana’s government to be recognized as female - a landmark victory for the rights of LGBT people.

Last month, Kenya’s High Court postponed a ruling on whether to strike down or uphold a colonial-era law banning gay sex until May.

(This story corrects lawyer’s name in third paragraph)

Reporting by Brian Benza; Editing by Emma Rumney and Mark Heinrich