Uganda’s Constitutional Court has nullified a draconian anti-gay law that carried, among other penalties, life-long prison sentences for so-called “aggravated homosexuality.”
In a decision Friday from a panel of five judges, the court found Uganda’s recently-enacted Anti-Homosexuality Act “null and void” because it was passed without a quorum of the necessary one-third members of parliament present. Ugandan officials have not yet announced a decision on whether they’ll appeal the ruling to the nation’s Supreme Court.
The challenge to the law was brought by 10 petitioners, according to the BBC, including academics, journalists, MPs, and human rights activists. In a statement, Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord congratulated the petitioners and said he was “deeply impressed” with their hard work and dedication.
“A ruling at this level represents an historic moment in the fight for the rights of LGBT people in Uganda, and we hope it will serve as an example for other countries in Africa and worldwide,” said Gaylord. “As the law is invalidated, we urge the Obama Administration to stay in close contact with the Ugandan government and civil society leaders to develop a plan for rolling back the sanctions it recently imposed as appropriate.”
Homosexuality had been illegal in Uganda for decades under a colonial-era statute, known as the Penal Code Act. The newer law, signed in February by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, went further by implementing life-long prison sentences for entering into a same-sex marriage or engaging in so-called “aggravated homosexuality” – which includes having sex with a minor, while HIV-positive, or even just repeatedly with a person of the same gender.
No one has yet been tried under the Anti-Homosexuality Act, and earlier charges against gay individuals had been dropped due a lack of evidence. But following the new law’s passage, prosecutors pursued a case against two Ugandans under the older Penal Code Act, scheduling a trial that would be the first for having gay sex in the country’s history. That trial has since been postponed, but human rights activists saw the case as a symptom of Uganda’s worsening climate for LGBT individuals.
Another symptom – increased violence. According to a report issued by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG,) incidents of anti-LGBT attacks have spiked in the country since the new law’s passage. Within four months, there were 162 cases of violence and discrimination documented, causing a number of LGBT Ugandans to flee the country.
President Obama has called the Anti-Homosexuality Act “a step backward,” while Secretary of State John Kerry likened it to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany. In June, the U.S. imposed sanctions against Uganda, including funding cuts and travel restrictions on state officials who were linked to human rights abuses. Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden have also cut aid to the East African nation.
The decision to nullify Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act comes ahead of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, where nearly 50 African heads of state and government will gather in Washington, D.C. next week. Both President Museveni, and Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, who signed a similar anti-gay measure in January, received an invitation to attend. Human rights activists are pushing for President Obama to use the opportunity to address the issue of anti-gay discrimination.