Uganda Parliament, Religious Leaders Weigh Death Penalty for LGBT People
November 2nd, 2009
As we reported last week, several Ugandan Christian leaders have spoken out on the Anti-Homosexuality Act which has been introduced in that nation’s Parliament, but their statements have largely been in full support with the bill – with a few reservations about the proposed death penalty for “serial offenders” and those who are HIV-positive. Those comments were made during discussions in a Parliament committee.
We’ve learned more details of those committee discussions held on October 28. Participants included members of Parliament David Bahati and Benson Obua Ogwal who are co-sponsors of the bill, and Minister of Ethics and Integrity James Nsaba-Buturo. Invited speakers included:
- The Rev. Canon Aaron Mwesigye, provincial secretary of the Anglican Church of Uganda;
- John Kakembo, of the Seventh Day Adventist Church;
- Dr. Joseph Sserwadda, representing the nation’s Pentecostal churches;
- Prof. Peter Matoyu, a university professor representing the Metropolitan Orthodox Church of Kampala.
- Sheikh Mohammad Ali, representing the Muslim Mufti of Uganda;
MP David Bahati, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, insisted that homosexuality was not a human right but “a bad habit.” He also repeated much of the false “science” promulgated by American anti-gay extremists, including the false charge that the life expectancy of gays are twenty-years shorter than that of non-gays. MP Bahati’s repeated most of his points in support of his bill in a column that appeared in yesterday’s Observer, in which he called the bill “a nice piece of legislation“:
Uganda is not a copycat of other countries. We can’t do what other countries are doing—especially when such countries are doing the wrong things. The fact that the moral fabric in America and Europe has been put under siege by the supporters of this creeping evil of homosexuality should not suggest that we should follow suit.
And I think supporting the cause of this Bill will provide Uganda as a country an opportunity to provide leadership in this area of safeguarding the traditional family. I must also point out that this Bill is not about hate or discrimination. We are not involved in a hate campaign.
…But ever since we tabled this Bill, we have come under attack. People have argued that we are promoting a hate campaign against homosexuals. And these attacks are coming mostly from civil society members who claim that homosexuality is a human right.
These same groups have persistently continued to place this evil in the category of human rights. They have rallied people to resist the Bill. They argue that we are targeting homosexuals, we hate them. But some of the people behind these messages are mothers and respectable people in our country.
…On top of this are the NGOs that are hugely involved in recruiting and giving money to our young children with the intention of swaying them into this evil practice.
But Uganda will never exchange her dignity for money. While we are poor in terms of finances, we are extremely rich in dignity. And we will never accept homosexuality for the sake of appeasing other countries or as an incentive for their money.
MP Bahati reviewed what his draconian bill would do. If passed, it would:
- Reaffirm the lifetime sentence currently provided upon conviction of homosexuality, and extends the definition from sexual activity to merely “touch[ing] another person with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality.”
- Create a new category of “aggravated homosexuality” which provides for the death penalty for “repeat offenders” and for cases where the individual is HIV-positive.
- Provides compensation for “victims” of homosexuality. This provision would encourage an accused’s consensual partner to claim that he or she was a “victim,” not only to escape criminal penalties, but also to demand compensation from his or her partner.
- Expand the definition of homosexuality to include “touching.” Current law requires proof of penetration. The proposed law would dramatically lower the burden of proof for penalties involving lifetime sentences or even death.
- Criminalizes all speech and peaceful assembly for those who advocate on behalf of LGBT citizens in Uganda with fines and imprisonment of between five and seven years.
- Criminalizes the act of obtaining a same-sex marriage abroad with lifetime imprisonment.
- Adds a clause which forces friends or family members to report LGBT persons to police within 24-hours of learning about that individual’s homosexuality or face fines or imprisonment of up to three years.
- Adds an extra-territorial and extradition provisions, allowing Uganda to prosecute LGBT Ugandans living abroad.
Death Sentence Provisions Questioned
The Parliamentary committee heard from several of Uganda’s religious leaders, beginning with Rev. Canon Aaron Mwesigye, provincial secretary of the Anglican Church of Uganda. As has been widely reported, he spoke out against only one provision of the bill, the section which provides the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”. The pro-government newspaper New Vision quoted Mwesigye this way:
“Can death as a form of punishment help one to reform? Some people are convicted of murder but after they have been killed, it’s proved they were innocent. What would be done in such circumstances? We should emphasize life imprisonment.”
Mwesigye also questioned the wisdom of the extra-territorial provisions in the bill, saying that those provisions might not be practical. Otherwise, he was complementary of the bill overall, but suggested that some portions of the bill didn’t go far enough. For example, on the section providing compensation for “victims,” he suggested that secondary victims — spouses, parents, and children of those who claim to have been seduced — also deserve compensation.
John Kakembo, of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, also questioned the death sentence, but otherwise praised the bill. He also repeated Mwesigye’s suggestion that the definition of victims be expanded for compensation. He justified this by calling all gay people predatory, claiming that he was targeted by foreigners when he was younger.
Themes of rampant criminality and wild predatory practices are extremely common in portrayals of LGBT people in Uganda. Prof. Peter Matoyu, who was representing the Metropolitan Orthodox Church of Kampala made some very incendiary and fanciful charges along those lines. He claimed that while a student in the U.S., a professor forced him to pretend that he and other Ugandan students were gay as part of their studies, and that they were in danger of being murdered by American gays if their ruse were discovered. This rhetoric only feeds the anti-gay frenzy that frequently grips the nation.
Government support for proposed legislation
Ethics and Integrity Minister James Nsaba-Buturo also spoke before the committee, and said that while the proposed act was highly controversial, he assured the panel that its passage would give Uganda a place of honor among civilized nations.
This is significant, as Nsaba-Buturo appears to have the full backing of President Yoweri Museveni, who, in Uganda’s paper-thin trappings of democratic functioning, is the real power in the country after having overthrown his predecessor in a civil war in 1986. In a statement released on the official web site of the Office of the President, Nsaba-Buturo has already warned Uganda’s media against “promoting homosexuality,” reminding them that a new law was being proposed to make all advocacy or positive portrayal of homosexuality tantamount to pornography and become subject to criminal penalties. This is no idle threat; Uganda’s press is not entirely free and the government has very recently shut down several broadcasters that have been critical of government policies.
“Total support” for the death penalty
While some Ugandan Christian leaders have expressed reservations about the death penalty provisions – while being perfectly happy with lifetime imprisonment for being gay, at least one prominent Uganda preacher has given the new law his total support. Martin Ssempa of Makerere Community Church was not at the parliamentary meeting, but he did send a statement to Grove City College professor Warren Throckmorton in which he offered his “total support of the bill and would be most grateful if it did pass.”
Ssempa enjoys close ties to Uganda’s First Lady, Janet Museveni, and as been tied to US pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. In 2005, Warren described Ssempa as “his indispensable sidekick,” but now he appears to be reeling back his support for the Ugandan megachurch pastor. In a statement released to Warren Throckmorton, Rick Warren wrote:
Martin Ssempa does not represent me, my wife Kay, Saddleback Church, nor the Global PEACE Plan strategy. In 2007, we completely severed contact with Mr. Ssempa when we learned that his views and actions were in serious conflict with our own.
Rev. Warren also enjoys close ties with Uganda’s First Lady and he had recently named Uganda a “Purpose Driven Nation.”
We do not know the Uganda President’s position on this bill. While his very prominent Minister of Ethics and Integrity had taken a very personal interest in this bill almost immediately following an anti-gay conference in Kampala by three American anti-gay activists, there has been no official statement from the President’s office. Almost all important bills are introduced by the President directly, but this proposed legislation is what’s called a “private member” bill. This has led some to suspect that President Museveni may be hedging his bets to gauge international reaction.