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Uganda backing off anti-Gay law, Obama speaks out
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Uganda backing off anti-Gay law, Obama speaks out

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

While President Obama issued a statement against Uganda's proposed law providing the death penalty for 'repeat offender' Gays, and the Ugandan government is reportedly backing off the threat of executions, the neighboring African country of Rwanda is now considering legislation criminalizing its LGBT community.

On December 11, the White House issued a statement saying that "[T]he president strongly opposes efforts, such as the draft law pending in Uganda, that would criminalize homosexuality and move against the tide of history."

In a December 14 speech at Georgetown University, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added, "Governments should be expected to resist the temptation to restrict freedom of expression when criticism arises, and be vigilant in preventing law from becoming an instrument of oppression, as bills like the one under consideration in Uganda to criminalize homosexuality would do."

The US State Department had previously characterized the proposed legislation as "a significant step backwards for human rights in Uganda," and said it was "in the process of raising the issue with the government of Uganda."

Uganda's proposed law specifies life in prison for even a single incident of Gay male sex, with execution for "repeat offenders" and for HIV-positive people who engage in homosexual activity.

The law would also impose penalties on organizations that promote homosexuality and persons who fail to report individuals they believe are Gay.

Uganda backing off?
The Ugandan government has met with an international barrage of criticism over the proposal, and as of this week it seemed to be backing away from the most severe provisions of the law.

On December 16, Uganda's largest independent newspaper, the Daily Monitor, printed an article reviewing international condemnation of the proposed law, and quoting President Obama's December 11 statement.

"By yesterday [December 15], however, the official stance was that the government had not yet reached a position on the proposed law," the Monitor added.

Uganda's Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo had been an outspoken supporter of the bill, but by the time of the Monitor article he was pledging to remain silent on the issue.

The government-owned New Vision, which is Uganda's largest paper, also published an op-ed by a senior advisor to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, which stated flatly, "Parliament should not pass this bill."

Even if Uganda does not enact the new law, homosexuality remains a criminal offense there, although a 2008 Ugandan Supreme Court decision held that discrimination against LGBT Ugandans was unconstitutional.

Rwanda piling on?
Meanwhile the Rwandan parliament debated a similar measure on December 16.

The proposed new Article 217 of the Rwandan penal code states that:

"Any person who practices, encourages or sensitizes people of the same sex, to sexual relation or any sexual practice, shall be liable for a term of imprisonment ranging from five (5) to ten (10) years and fine ranging from two hundred thousand Rwanda Francs (200,000 RwF) to one million (1,000,000)Rwanda francs."

The fines range from US$350 to US$1,750. The average annual income in Rwanda is just US$370.

Some journalists reported that the vote on the proposed legislation would come right after the debate on Wednesday, December 16, but as SGN goes to press no decision has yet been reached. Homosexuality is currently legal in Rwanda.

Christian right bails on Museveni
In a significant development, Christian right leaders in the US responded to embarrassing revelations of their own close ties to Ugandan President Museveni by joining in criticism of the anti-Gay bill.

On December 16, the powerful Fellowship (sometimes known as the Family or the C Street Group) - a secretive right-wing Christian group with an extensive following among US political leaders - made clear that it opposes the bill.

Fellowship member Bob Hunter, the man responsible for building his group's alliance with Museveni in the 1990s, told reporter Jeff Sharlet, "I know of no one involved in Uganda with the Fellowship here in America, including the most conservative among them, that supports such things as killing homosexuals or draconian reporting requirements, much less has gone over to Uganda to push such positions."

Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren, who in the past has described both Uganda and Rwanda as "purpose-driven nations" - a reference to his book, Purpose Driven Life - also disavowed the proposed law.

In a video now available on YouTube, Warren describes the Ugandan legislation as "extreme, unjust and unchristian towards homosexuals." He urged Ugandan religious leaders to "speak out against this proposed law."

Scott Lively, who participated in the anti-Gay conference in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, which launched the bill in March this year, also came out against it.

"I agree with the general goal but this law is far too harsh," he said.

Lively is the founder of the Christian fascist group Watchmen on the Walls, which has been accused of organizing anti-Gay violence in Russia and other former-Soviet countries.

Activists respond
Susan Timberlake, a senior adviser on human rights and law for UNAIDS, the United Nations agency fighting HIV/AIDS in less developed countries, said laws like those contemplated by Uganda and Rwanda could hinder the fight against HIV/AIDS by driving people further underground.

Activists also worry that the legislation could be used to blackmail or silence government critics. Frank Mugisha, a Gay Ugandan human rights activist, said the bill was so broadly worded that someone could be imprisoned for giving a hug.

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