World News

Ugandan government accused of "state homophobia"

NAIROBI (Reuters) - An international human rights group has accused President Yoweri Museveni’s government of promoting “state homophobia” in Uganda and urged the repeal of a colonial-era law against sodomy.

Human Rights Watch’s attack added to a fierce social debate in the east African nation, where gays and lesbians have been increasingly vocal in demanding rights while Christian groups have taken to the streets to denounce them.

Homosexuality is proscribed in many African countries, with gays and lesbians often living secret lives to avoid prejudice.

New York-based HRW sent a letter to Museveni calling for legislative reform and an end to his “long record of harassing” lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender people.

“For years, President Museveni’s government has drummed up homophobia and denied the basic rights of LGBT people for his own political advantage,” said HRW researcher Juliana Cano Nieto in a statement sent to media on Friday.

“If lesbians and gays can be punished simply for speaking up for their rights, the freedoms of all Ugandans are endangered.”

The issue came to the fore in Uganda earlier this month when an advocacy group, the Sexual Minorities Groups in Uganda, took the unprecedented step of holding a news conference to demand recognition. Even so, most hid their faces behind masks.

That prompted demonstrators from the Inter-faith Coalition of church groups to rally in Kampala demanding a crackdown, waving placards like “Arrest all homos”, and railing against a U.S. newspaper intern who had written on homosexuals in Uganda.

“Homosexual acts are criminalized in Uganda under a sodomy law inherited from British colonial times, although punishments were substantially strengthened in 1990,” HRW added, saying the deputy attorney-general had recently vowed to apply it.

“State homophobia and well-funded fanaticism are undermining Uganda’s efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS,” Nieto added.

HRW accused Museveni’s government, in power since 1986, of harassing gay organizations, promoting discrimination through state media and raiding homes of activists.

Ugandan officials were not immediately available to respond.

Activists say Uganda, with a population of 31 million, has some 500,000 gays and lesbians.

With Christianity and traditional beliefs strong across the continent, it is common to hear homosexuality denounced as “un-African” or an import of “Western immorality”.

Homosexual communities exist, but keep an extremely low profile compared to their Western counterparts.