Uganda’s parliament on Tuesday passed sweeping anti-gay legislation which proposes tough new penalties for same-sex relationships following a highly charged and chaotic session.
“The ayes have it,” parliamentary speaker Annet Anita Among said after a final vote, adding that the “bill passed in record time.”
Uganda’s parliament was due to vote Tuesday on anti-gay legislation which proposes tough new penalties for same-sex relations in a country where homosexuality is already illegal.
Under the proposed law, anyone in the conservative East African nation who engages in same-sex activity or who identifies publicly as LGBTQ could face up to 10 years in prison.
“The Anti-Homosexuality Bill is ready and will be tabled (put) before parliament for a vote this afternoon,” said Robina Rwakoojo, chair of the legal and parliamentary affairs committee, which has been studying the legislation.
The legislation enjoys broad public support in Uganda and reaction from civil society has been muted following years of erosion of civic space under President Yoweri Museveni’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
Nevertheless, Museveni has consistently signalled he does not view the issue as a priority and would prefer to maintain good relations with Western donors and investors.
Discussions about the bill in parliament have frequently been laced with homophobic rhetoric, with Museveni last week referring to gay people as “these deviants.”
“Homosexuals are deviations from normal. Why? Is it by nature or nurture? We need to answer these questions,” the 78-year-old told lawmakers.
“We need a medical opinion on that. We shall discuss it thoroughly,” he added, in a manoeuvre interpreted by analysts and foreign diplomats as a delaying tactic.
“Museveni has historically taken into account the damage of the bill to Uganda’s geopolitics, particularly in terms of relations with the West, and in terms of donor funding,” said Kristof Titeca, an expert on East African affairs at the University of Antwerp.
“His suggestion to ask for a medical opinion can be understood in this context: a way to put off what is a deeply contentious political issue,” Titeca said.
On Saturday, Uganda’s attorney general Kiryowa Kiwanuka told the parliamentary committee scrutinising the bill that existing colonial-era laws “adequately provided for an offence”.
As parliamentary proceedings got under way, legislator Fox Odoi-Oywelowo, who belongs to Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party, urged lawmakers not to pass the legislation.
The bill “contains provisions that are unconstitutional, reverses the gains registered in the fight against gender-based violence and criminalises individuals instead of conduct that contravenes legal provisions”, he said, as some MPs repeatedly tried to shout over him.
“It was introduced during a time when anti-homosexual sentiments have been whipped up across the country and is not based on any evidence to show that incidents of homosexuality have increased and require additional legislative intervention,” he added.
In recent months, conspiracy theories accusing shadowy international forces of promoting homosexuality have gained traction on social media in Uganda.
Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a leading gay rights organisation whose operations were suspended by the authorities last year, said earlier this month he had already been inundated with calls from LGBTQ people over the new bill.
“Community members are living in fear,” he said.
Last week, police said they had arrested six men for “practising homosexuality” in the southern lakeside town of Jinja.
Another six men were arrested on the same charge on Sunday, according to police.
Uganda is notorious for intolerance of homosexuality — which is criminalised under colonial-era laws.
But since independence from Britain in 1962 there has never been a conviction for consensual same-sex activity.
In 2014, Ugandan lawmakers passed a bill that called for life in prison for people caught having gay sex.
The legislation sparked international condemnation, with some Western nations freezing or redirecting millions of dollars of government aid in response, before a court later struck down the law on a technicality.