As the world scrambles to promote social distancing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Uganda is one of the select countries using police force to break up large groups. As of April 1, the Ugandan Ministry of Health has confirmed 44 cases of COVID-19, far fewer than most countries at this time. Unfortunately, the Ugandan police are using this new law as an opportunity to continue to abuse LGBTQ citizens.
Uganda made global headlines in 2014 for its anti-homosexuality law that made “carnal knowledge” between people of the same sex punishable by the death penalty. After international outcry, the parliament annulled the law later that same year, but it was re-introduced and almost passed multiple times in the years since. The bill had the support of President Yoweri Museveni, who is still in power today. Homosexual acts in Uganda are currently punishable by up to life in prison.
Homosexual acts in Uganda are currently punishable by up to life in prison.
Children of the Sun Foundation (COSF), a Ugandan nonprofit led by and advocating for LGBTQ youth and sex workers, operates multiple programs and services, including an LGBTQ youth shelter in Kyengera, just outside of the capital city of Kampala. The shelter provides accommodation to those with nowhere else to go, often people facing family rejection. Twenty-one young LGBTQ people, including gay men, bi men, and trans women, were living at the shelter on Sunday, March 29, when the police came.
Officers arrested all of the residents, as well as two staff members, taking them to Nkokonjeru police post in Kyengera after about an hour of questioning and harassment, which included a local mayor using a long stick to hit those he interrogated. A local media outlet broadcasted a video of the event, publicly outing the residents, as well as including commentary from community members who lived near the shelter and didn’t want gay people in their neighborhood. (NewNowNext has reviewed the video, but has chosen not to link to it and further publicize the youths’ identities.)
After police took the 23 people away, the raid continued when officers searched for supposed evidence of homosexual activity, collecting condoms and PrEP pills. At the station, the police decided not to charge the prisoners with homosexuality, but instead accused 20 of them with “doing neglect act [sic] likely to spread infection of disease” and “disobedience of lawful order.” While President Museveni has ordered everyone to stay inside to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, those arrested were inside the only home they had, raising concerns that the social distancing laws were only an excuse to carry out a homophobic raid.
These arrests exposed the global crisis of LGBTQ homelessness. Research by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that LGBTQ teens in the U.S. are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ counterparts. Comparable stats, however, are not available for African countries. However, it’s clear that, with no accepting family offering a home in which to quarantine, queer youth around the world who live in shelters like COSF’s are more vulnerable to the virus.
On Monday, March 30, Uganda instituted a complete lockdown of all non-essential activity, meaning no lawyers or advocates are able to access the 20 prisoners. Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), a Ugandan human rights advocacy nonprofit that offers legal aid to incarcerated people, does not expect to be able to speak with the prisoners until the lockdown is lifted, according to an emailed statement to NewNowNext. At their arraignment, a judge remanded the 20 people to prison until an April 29 hearing. The prisoners are now interacting with many more people in a place with even fewer coronavirus-related precautions.
In a statement confirming the raid, the Uganda Police Force said: “The assembly of [21 adults] with no known kinship linkages and their unusual home environment indicate that they could have been engaging in some criminal activities, a matter that Police is [sic] investigating.”
HRAPF issued a statement as well, saying they “shall continue to do all that is possible to ensure the protection of the basic inalienable rights of [marginalized] persons during this period” and that they “[urge] the state to respect human rights and protect vulnerable groups even as the fight against COVID-19 goes on.”
Eric Ndawula, the executive director of Let’s Walk Uganda (LWU)—a Ugandan nonprofit that works to improve the standard of living for men who have sex with men—says the pandemic is being used as a “cover-up story” for the raid. LWU also operates a similar shelter to COSF’s.
“The raid on COSF scared me to the bones because I know exactly what those people are going through, as I happened to go through very much similar events mid-October 2019 when our shelter was raided on similar homophobic grounds,” Ndawula wrote NewNowNext in an email. “The continued raids on different [LGBTQ] shelters and meeting points make it clear that our society is willing to do whatever it takes to silence us and keep us in fear simply because of who we love and who we are.”
The LGBTQ community is left further exposed to attacks by the pandemic, especially those with housing insecurity, as Sunday’s raid illuminates. Frank Mugisha, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureate for his work advocating for fellow LGBTQ Ugandans, tells NewNowNext: “Our fear is that many violations towards [LGBTQ] persons will go unreported [during the lockdown]. It is such a shame that the police would put at risk an already vulnerable community.”
Update (July 9, 2020): This article has been corrected to accurately reflect the gender identities of those arrested after new information came to light. As Reuters reported in May, 19 of the detained LGBTQ Ugandans—including gay men, bi men, and trans women—were finally released after months of abuse and torture via court order. A GoFundMe has been created to cover their housing and food costs.