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A new anti-gay law in Uganda calls for life in prison for those who are convicted

A Ugandan wearing a mask with a rainbow sticker takes part in the Gay Pride parade in 2015.
AFP via Getty Images
A Ugandan wearing a mask with a rainbow sticker takes part in the Gay Pride parade in 2015.

Updated May 29, 2023 at 1:27 PM ET

Uganda has passed one of the world's toughest anti-gay laws that calls for life imprisonment for anyone convicted of homosexuality. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed the Anti-homosexuality acton Monday despite widespread condemnation from many Western governments and human rights activists.

Same-sex relations were already illegal in Uganda, a religiously conservative East African nation. But the new law levies harsher penalties for LGBTQ people. It calls for the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," which is defined as same-sex relations involving HIV-positive people, children or other vulnerable people. Anyone convicted of "attempted aggravated homosexuality" can be imprisoned for up to 14 years. Ugandans who engages in gay sex can receive life in prison, while anyone who attempts to have same-sex relations can face 10 years in prison.

In a statement, President Biden called the newly passed law "shameful" and suggested it could impact U.S.-Uganda relations.

"I have directed my National Security Council to evaluate the implications of this law on all aspects of U.S. engagement with Uganda," he said, "Including our ability to safely deliver services under the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other forms of assistance and investments."

The new law also drew swift condemnation from human rights organizations and LGBTQ rights groups in Uganda and throughout the world.

"We are appalled that the draconian and discriminatory anti-gay bill is now law," the United Nations' Human Rights office said in a tweet on Monday. "It is a recipe for systematic violations of the rights of LGBT people & the wider population. It conflicts with the Constitution and international treaties and requires urgent judicial review."

Roland Ebole, the regional researcher for Amnesty International, said the group is calling for repeal of the law. By late Monday evening in Uganda gay activisits had filed a petition in the constitutional court, challenging the new Anti-homosexuality law.

Parliamentary Speaker Anita Among cheered the decision, saying in a statement the president had "answered the cries of our people" in signing the bill. "With a lot of humility, I thank my colleagues the Members of Parliament for withstanding all the pressure from bullies and doomsday conspiracy theorists in the interest of our country," the statement said.

An earlier version of the bill was passed overwhelmingly by Uganda's parliament in March. It created a backlash from business and the international community, and was sent back for alterations after Museveni vetoed it. The amended, final version stipulates that merely identifying as LGBTQ isn't a crime. It also altered a measure that required people to report homosexual activity if a child is involved.

Uganda passed a previous anti-homosexuality law in 2014, but the courts struck it down on procedural grounds following outrage in Uganda and from international donors. Homosexuality is criminalized in more than 30 of Africa's 54 countries.

Widespread anti-gay sentiment in Uganda and the threat of imprisonment has forced many in the LGBTQ community to flee the country over the past few years. The new law has sent manyothers into hiding.

Frank Mugisha, head of the banned group Sexual Minorities Uganda, says instead of targeting LGBTQ people, the government should be focused on tackling some of the greater social problems in the country.

"They should target individuals who are engaged in direct gross human rights violations and undermining democracy," he said. "But also, corruption, abuse of other human rights as well."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
Halima Athumani