Ugandan court upholds anti-gay law that allows the death penalty in some cases

KAMPALA, Uganda — (AP) — Uganda's Constitutional Court on Wednesday upheld an anti-gay law that allows the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality" despite widespread condemnation from rights groups and others abroad.

President Yoweri Museveni signed the bill into law in May last year. The law is supported by many in the East African country, where some see it as behavior imported from abroad and not a sexual orientation.

One activist petitioner quickly vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court,

Constitutional Court judges said the law was legally passed by parliament and does not violate the constitution. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda under a colonial-era law criminalizing sexual activity “against the order of nature.” The punishment for that offense is life imprisonment.

The law in question defines “aggravated homosexuality” as cases of homosexual relations involving a minor and other categories of vulnerable people, or when the perpetrator is infected with HIV. A suspect convicted of “attempted aggravated homosexuality” can be imprisoned for up to 14 years, and the offense of “attempted homosexuality” is punishable by up to 10 years.

The court, however, ruled that members of the gay community should not be discriminated against when seeking medication. Uganda was one of the earliest and hardest hit countries when AIDS emerged, and public health experts have long warned against letting stigma or fear of punishment impede access to care.

“They should be medically and culturally accepted,” Deputy Chief Justice Richard Buteera said.

One of the 14 petitioners, Andrew Mwenda, said they would appeal.

“What we have witnessed in court is what I would call a temporary reversal in an overall strategic battle or a strategic war against cultural bigotry and prejudice, so we are going to appeal to the Supreme Court, not for striking down the different components of this law but for overturning this law into its entirety,” he said.

The U.N. commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk, in a statement expressed dismay at the court's decision and called on Uganda's government to repeal the law. He said nearly 600 people have been reportedly subjected to rights violations and abuses based on their actual or assumed sexual orientation or gender identity since the law was enacted in May.

When the law was passed, the U.N. human rights office called it ”a recipe for systematic violations of the rights” of LGBTQ+ people and others. U.S. President Joe Biden called the law “a tragic violation of universal human rights — one that is not worthy of the Ugandan people, and one that jeopardizes the prospects of critical economic growth for the entire country.”

The World Bank halted new loans to Uganda, saying additional measures were necessary to ensure projects align with the bank's environmental and social standards.

Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries.