- Human rights activists fear that the decision of Ugandan tabloid 'Red Pepper' to publish the names of alleged homosexuals could presage a government crackdown. In a country where a sodomy conviction carries a penalty of life imprisonment and homosexuals are stigmatised and harassed by government officials, the tabloid's move had been irresponsible.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch today strongly criticised 'Red Pepper' for an article published on 8 August, including a list of first names, workplaces and other identifying information of 45 alleged homosexuals, all men. The newspaper said it was publishing the list "to show the nation ... how fast the terrible vice known as sodomy is eating up our society." It has since told activists that it plans to publish a similar list of alleged lesbians.
"For years, President Yoweri Museveni's government routinely threatens and vilifies lesbians and gays, and subjects sexual-rights activists to harassment," commented today Jessica Stern of Human Rights Watch. "At a moment when sensational publicity has spread fear among a whole community, the authorities must exercise their responsibility to protect, not persecute," she added.
According to the group, homophobic allegations in the 'Red Pepper' had "previously led to police action." In 2002, the tabloid ran banner headlines and photographs about an alleged wedding between two women. Kampala police promptly arrested the women in question, according to HRW.
Although the couple was freed when an attorney intervened, they were jailed again and held for several days, allegedly for their own safety, after a mob threatened them. A Ugandan pastor who had counselled them was later forced to leave the country.
This is however played down by a 'Red Pepper' editor, who asked not to be named when interviewed by the 'BBC' today. The editor dismissed allegations of a witch-hunt and said that no man on the list was identifiable. "It's one of the interesting things for people to read in a tabloid because in African societies homosexuality is still seen as strange," he told the 'BBC'.
Ms Stern nevertheless claims to know that some of the men on the 'Red Pepper' list had been identified. Several of the men had reportedly "already been threatened and harassed," she holds. 'Red Pepper' was playing with fire, as accusations against alleged homosexuals "could subject them to violence in the family and community," Ms Stern added.
For close to two years, Human Rights Watch said, officials haD "regularly threatened and harassed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans." Several homosexuals have been imprisoned for belonging to gay associations.
Same-sex sexual relations are criminalised in Uganda under a sodomy law inherited from British colonial rule. The Penal Code criminalises "carnal knowledge against the order of nature" with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. It also punishes "attempts" at carnal knowledge with a maximum of seven years' imprisonment and acts of "gross indecency" with up to five years in prison. These terms are understood to describe consensual homosexual conduct.
In September 2005, President Museveni signed into law a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The amendment says that "marriage is lawful only if entered into between a man and a woman," and specifies that "it is unlawful for same-sex couples to marry." A parliamentary spokesperson said at the time that criminal penalties for engaging in such marriages would be imposed later.
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