Constitutional Court Strikes Down Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill

Jim Burroway

August 1st, 2014

At noon this morning Kampala time, Uganda’s Constitutional Court has declared the draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act null and void. The Court said that the law was invalid because Parliament lacked the constitutionally-mandated quorum when it passed the legislation last December. Article 88 of Uganda’s constitution (PDF: 469KB/192pages) requires that at least one third of members be present any time Parliament votes “on any question.”

The court room was reportedly tense as people gathered this morning for the session to start at 9:30 local time (2:30 a.m. EDT). The court had heard testimony on Wednesday and Thursday over the quorum issue, and observers were expected the court to rule on that question today. As 9:30 came and went, the Court announced that they were putting off the morning’s session until noon. Pastor Martin Ssempa reportedly became agitated as the morning progressed, and police had to step in to settle the situation down.

When the Constitutional Court resumed at Noon, it read its judgment nullifying the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Meanwhile, Ssempa’s twitter feed went silent after the court’s verdict. As of this moment, this was his last tweet:

J. Lester Feder reports that LGBT activists are bracing for another round of violence following the court’s decision:

The law’s supporters, like Ssempa and the leadership of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda, had been whipping up their supporters during the two days of hearings before the ruling, and LGBT activists expected a backlash if they won.

“Many people are going to retaliate and attack community members,” said Kasha Jacqueline of the organization Freedom and Roam Uganda, another of the petitioners. “People are going to retaliate — not just the members of parliament and anti-gay groups and religious leaders, but in the community as well.”

The Anti-Homosexuality Act provided a lifetime sentence for those who convicted of homosexuality. It also imposed a lifetime sentence for those who convicted of “aggravated homosexuality,” which include “serial offenders” of homosexuality “or related offences.” Related offenses include lifetime imprisonment for entering into a same-sex marriage, seven years for conducting one, five to seven years for advocacy by or on behalf of LGBT people, five years for providing housing to LGBT people, and seven years for providing services to LGBT people. The Act also provided for the extradition of any “person charged with an offence under this Act.”

Before its passage, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill had been safely bottled up in Parliament, but observers believe domestic politics eventually took over and ensured the bill’s passage. Originally introduced in 2009, the bill remained bottled up in the House, which failed in its last minute efforts to pass the bill before the Eight Parliament expired in 2011. House Speaker Rebecca Kadaga had spent much of 2012 and 2013 raising her profile in a possible bid to challenge President Yoweri Museveni in the run-up to the 2016 general elections, engineered the bill’s reintroduction in Parliament in February 2012. It’s passage appeared imminent at the end of that year when it became a political football in a larger fight over control of the country’s newly-developing oil reserves. As Parliament tore itself apart over a contentious oil bill, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill rose to the top of Parliament’s published Order Papers, which sets the agenda for the day, under the heading of “Business to follow,” of actions to take place after the oil bill’s passage. It was believed that the hugely popular Anti-Homosexuality Bill was being held close at hand as a potential unifying measure. But after Parliament passed the contentious petroleum legislation, it broke for Christmas and the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was quietly removed from the Order Papers when Parliament resumed in the Spring of 2013.

But behind-the-scene plans to swiftly pass the Anti-Homosexuality Bill without debate emerged in April 2013, when the opposition magazine Observer reported that a MP’s were lobbying Kadaga to hold the debate in a closed-door session so that individual members could speak freely without having foreign donations to their pet projects or travel visas jeopardized. On December 20, Kadaga made a snap call to bring the Anti-Homosexuality Bill before the house for a final vote, despite the bill not appearing on the order papers for the day. Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi objected to the vote citing the lack of quorum, but Kadaga overruled Mbabazi and the bill passed on December 20.

Museveni’s initial reaction was to wrote a letter to Kadaga criticizing Parliament’s rushed approval about the bill. Among his many complaints were that the bill was passed without the proper quorum. He told representatives of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in January that he would reject what he called the “fascist” Anti-Homosexuality Bill. But again, politics intervened. Mbabazi was also maneuvering to challenge Museveni’s position at the same time as Kadaga, and he was already on record as objecting to Parliament’s passage of the legislation. Museveni’s about-face in February was seen by many as part of a larger effort to counter Mbabazi’s efforts to build a rival power base within the ruling National Resistance Movement. Museveni signed the bill on February 24.

The bill’s signing initiated a wave of anti-gay vigilantism in the press while the government raided several NGO’s for allegedly “promoting” homosexuality. In March, a coalition of human rights groups petitioned the Constitutional Court, charging that the Anti-Homosexuality Act violated several constitutionally-guaranteed rights, including the rights to privacy, free expression, thought, assembly, association, civil participation, and the rights to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It also charged that Parliament acted improperly in passing the bill without a quorum.

In Uganda, it’s typical for court cases to proceed at a snails pace, with months passing between small bursts of activity. Cases often languish for years. So it was a significant surprise when the Court’s first act came late last week with a snap call for both sides to present their cases on Wednesday and Thursday, which caught a lot of people off guard. State Attorney Patricia Mutesi complained that she wasn’t prepared to proceed with her arguments and asked for a delay, but the court rejected that request. It heard testimony Wednesday and Thursday, and delivered its decision today. That lightning-quick movement is practically unprecedented, leading many to speculate on the politics behind the court’s dramatic move. Museveni is planning to travel to Washington, D.C. next week to attend a summit of African leaders.

LGBT and human rights activists say they expect the Anti-Homosexuality Bill to be reintroduced in Parliament again, but it would mean starting the entire process over again, including motions to seek permission to introduce the bill, a certificate of financial implication from the government, and committee hearings. That certificate of financial implication is likely the most logical step for Museveni to step in to quash the bill. When the bill was first introduced, the certificate certified that there were no financial implications, but with several countries suspending or canceling foreign aid to Uganda over the AHB, the financial toll of reintroducing the bill is now known to be enormous. It is believed that foreign aid makes up from twenty to thirty percent of Uganda’s GDP, and about twenty percent of the government’s budget.

SharonB

August 2nd, 2014

Well, this is certainly good news. Expect CHRino’s like Ssempa to react in characteristic wholly rage :(

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