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Uganda's LGBTQ community faces harsh legislation — including the death penalty

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Uganda's president has now signed one of the world's harshest anti-LGBTQ laws. Homosexual acts were already illegal in Uganda. This new law means that anyone convicted could face life in prison and, in some specific instances, the death penalty. It's been widely condemned internationally. The White House said it was a tragic violation of universal human rights and called for its immediate repeal. We're joined now by journalist Halima Athumani from the capital, Kampala. Good afternoon.

HALIMA ATHUMANI: Good afternoon.

SUMMERS: So tell us - what are the details of this new law?

ATHUMANI: The law proposes a number of harsh penalties, and many are very specific. These include anyone convicted of homosexuality being imprisoned for life. As you mentioned already, it's already illegal to be homosexual in Uganda, but now queer people face very harsh penalties. At its most extreme, the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Act creates and defines the act of aggravated homosexuality, which it defines as having sex with vulnerable persons and children as an act that carries the ultimate punishment. This is politician Asuman Basalirwa, who introduced this legislation in the first place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASUMAN BASALIRWA: So when you commit aggravated homosexuality, the law says you shall be liable to suffer death.

ATHUMANI: In addition to this, people who are seen as promoting homosexuality could face up to 20 years in prison. It would also seek to prosecute those who knowingly allow gay people to have sex on their premises, from private residences to hotels.

SUMMERS: OK. And so why did Uganda's parliament push this legislation to begin with?

ATHUMANI: This is not the first time such legislation has been introduced, but previous attempts have either been repealed or the legislation has been watered down. It is worth mentioning that a number of U.S. evangelical groups have been actively encouraging this legislation over the years, most recently, the Arizona-based the Family Watch International group. Uganda is a very conservative, very Christian society in many quarters. Beyond this, Uganda and many African countries' attitudes towards homosexuality have been shaped by colonial-era laws. President Yoweri Museveni has long spoken out against what he calls divergent behavior. He previously called on Africa to, quote, "save the world from homosexuality." There was a hope that, under pressure from the international community, including the U.S., he would veto the law. But that has not happened.

SUMMERS: OK. And what has been the reaction of the queer community in Uganda to this law?

ATHUMANI: The LGBTQ community has been left in shock, speechless, and covered in a cloud of fear. Here's Frank Mugisha, the head of the banned Sexual Minorities Uganda. He says the international community should react to Uganda.

FRANK MUGISHA: They should target individuals who are engaged in direct gross human rights violations and undermining democracy, but also corruption, abuse of other human rights as well.

ATHUMANI: He's very worried about how the community will be affected. There are already people in hiding. I've talked to those from the community who have been kicked out of their homes by their families who've had to abandon their children because they are gay, and they fear prosecution. Many have simply had to leave the country - that's if they can afford it. Mugisha says this is the moment for the international community to react to Uganda's actions.

SUMMERS: And so far, what has been the reaction internationally?

ATHUMANI: The United Nations has said they are, quote, "appalled" by today's news. Many governments, including the U.S., have called the law draconian. The U.S. has threatened to cut health funding, and that means cutting aid aimed at fighting HIV/AIDS. According to a statement from PEPFAR - the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria - and the U.N., this law will put Uganda's anti-HIV fight, quote, "in grave jeopardy," end quote.

SUMMERS: Halima Athumani in Kampala, thank you so much.

ATHUMANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.