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Gay activists sue Ugandan government

Alex Gitta
May 18, 2017

A group of gay rights activists in Uganda have taken a government agency to court for refusing to register their organization. Homosexuality is illegal in the country, and violence against sexual minorities is rife.

Uganda Homosexuell vor einem Regenbogenfahne
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Vassie

Sexual Minorities Uganda lodged its case with the High Court after the Ugandan Registration Service Bureau knocked back the organization's attempt to register its name.

In a statement on its website, the rights group - also known by the acronym SMUG - said it expects the Kampala-based court to hand down a decision at the end of the month.

The activists have been struggling since 2012 to register their organization - a step they say would guarantee certain benefits and obligations crucial to carrying out their work.

They opted to sue after receiving a rejection letter from the registration bureau explaining that their chosen name, Sexual Minorities Uganda, was "undesirable and because homosexuals and same sex relations are illegal in Uganda, the bureau cannot legitimize an illegality."

Protesters march in a gay rights parade in Uganda
Protesters celebrate the annulment of an anti-homosexuality law by Uganda's constitutional courtImage: REUTERS

"We decided to file a case in court purposely to advocate for the rights of association and assembly because an organization in law is incapable of committing a criminal act," Patricia Kimera, one of the lawyers on the activists' side, told DW.

SMUG's legal team argues that the government agency's decision violates a number of rights enshrined in the Ugandan constitution, including freedom of association, expression, assembly and the rights of minorities to participate in decision-making processes.

Officials at the bureau declined to comment on the case.

Uganda: gay rights campaigner Kasha Nabagesera

Working underground

Homosexuality has been a criminal offense in Uganda since 1952. Like much of sub-Saharan Africa, the country is socially conservative and deeply religious. That reality makes it difficult for minority rights groups like SMUG to operate, particularly if they can't register as an organization, says SMUG legal coordinator Daglous Mawadri.

"There are so many challenges of running an organization that is not registered," he told DW. "One is the fact that you have to operate underground. For example, you cannot apply outright to donors, you cannot have funds, you cannot have spaces to operate. That means most of the things that you do have to be underground."

Anti-gay policies

In recent years, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has also tried to pass legislation to curtail LGBT rights further. In 2014 he signed a law that punished same sex relations with long prison terms. He has gone on record several times condemning homosexuality and accusing groups of "deliberately recruiting people who are not homosexual into homosexuality" by offering them money. His anti-gay legislation sparked an international outcry, leading some countries to withhold aid funding. The law was later overturned by the constitutional court on a technicality.

Nevertheless, homosexuality remains illegal in Uganda, and assaults on lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the country are on the rise, according to Human Rights Watch.

SMUG says its aim is to improve the rights situation for sexual minorities through advocacy, policy reform and economic empowerment, along with providing counseling and other services. And while they wait for the upcoming court decision, they'll likely continue this work, albeit underground for now.

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