Prominent Human Rights Activist Murdered in Uganda


Just after this story was published, we learned of the case of a lesbian woman from Uganda, set to be deported back to her country from the UK. She has been threatened by Ugandan lawmaker David Bahati to “repent” or else.  The UK has declined her request for asylum based on fears for her life.

Human rights advocates and the United States Department of State are calling for an investigation of the murder of a prominent Ugandan human rights advocate. David Kato, the advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), fought for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons. He was brutally murdered in his home yesterday by an unknown assailant. 

Kato’s murder came on the heels of calls late last year by a Ugandan magazine for the deaths of LGBT persons, specifically naming Kato among others, and posting their pictures.  LGBT persons in Uganda face a deteriorating climate of such hate speech and  anti-LGBT violence amid ongoing debate around legislation first proposed two years ago by Ugandan lawmakers seeking to criminalize homosexuality.

Homosexual sex is already illegal in Uganda. The proposed legislation, originally introduced in October 2009 and known as the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, criminalizes advocacy for the rights of LGBT persons as well as other actions.  According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), it would criminalize all homosexuality, making it punishable by a fine and life imprisonment. “Repeat offenders” and those who are HIV-positive would be subject to the death penalty. The bill would also oblige anyone with knowledge of someone who is or might be a homosexual to report that person to the police within 24 hours.

As Ramona Vijeyarasa reported for RH Reality Check in November 2009, the bill has sweeping implications:

The bill proposes a seven-year jail term for anyone who “attempts to commit the offence” or who “aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality.”  Under the proposed law, “promotion of homosexuality,” including publishing information or providing funds, premises for activities, or other resources, is also punishable by a seven-year sentence or a fine of US$50,000. The bill seeks to apply the death penalty handed down for the crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as a sexual assault committed against a member of the same sex who is under 18 or disabled. An HIV test would be forced upon anyone found guilt of the offense of “homosexuality.”

In a statement after introduction of the bill in the Ugandan parliament, Kate Sheill, Amnesty International’s expert on sexual rights, stated:

“Certain provisions in this bill are illegal; they are also immoral.  They criminalize a sector of society for being who they are, when what the government should be doing instead is protecting them from discrimination and abuse.”

The bill has been widely condemned both within Uganda and internationally.

After it was first introduced, Vijeyarasa wrote:

The bill has been condemned by a number of African organisations which promote equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people, including Sexual Minorities Uganda, Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) and The Rainbow Project of Namibia, all of which may become illegal for “promoting homosexuality” if the Bill is passed. When the bill was condemned by the US Embassy in Kampala in late October, the Ugandan Ethics Minister James Nsaba Buturo’s response was to dismiss the very notion of human rights: “We are really getting tired of this phrase ‘human rights’. It is being abused. Anything goes, and if you are challenged? ‘Oh, it’s my right’”.

President Barack Obama called the bill “odious,” and Kato himself had called the bill “profoundly undemocratic and un-African.”  Though the bill was later shelved in response to intense international pressure, Sky News Africa reports that “gay rights campaigners fear it may be re-introduced if President Yoweri Museveni is re-elected for a fourth term next month.”

Political and religious leaders in Uganda have for several years been openly encouraging fear and hatred of LGBT persons by constantly speaking of the “dangers” of homosexuality and equating homosexual persons as being against Christianity among other things.  The introduction of the Anti-Gay bill in Uganda in 2009 and the open spewing of hate speech by Ugandan lawmakers is believed by some to have sparked a rise in hate crimes against LGBT persons in other countries in Africa in early 2010.

The fight against the bill has also pushed Ugandan activists to the fore, according to HRW, raising concern for their privacy and safety. These deepened in late 2010 when, HRW states:

“[A] local tabloid called Rolling Stone, unconnected to the US magazine, published pictures, names, and residence locations of some members of the LGBT community, along with a headline saying, “Hang Them.” Kato’s photo appeared on the cover, and inside another photo appeared with his name.”

HRW notes that three activists, including Kato, eventually sued the publication and won on January 3, 2011. The judge ruled that the publication had violated their constitutional rights to privacy and ordered compensation. He also issued an injunction prohibiting any further publication of the identities and home locations of individuals labeled homosexuals.

Kato, who, according to a report by the Associated Press had received multiple threats, was found with serious wounds to his head caused by an attack with a hammer at his home late Wednesday in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. He died on the way to the hospital.

Ugandan police claim the killing was due to a robbery.

But Ugandan groups want a full investigation. In a statement, Sexual Minorities Uganda and the Ugandan Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Community called on the police and the Government of Uganda “to seriously investigate the circumstances surrounding David’s death.”

We also call on religious leaders, political leaders and media houses to stop demonizing sexual minorities in Uganda since doing so creates a climate of violence against gay persons.

Others have pointed to the influence in Uganda of fundamentalist U.S. Evangelical groups that have been working there and have at various times helped pay for anti-gay workshops, pushed for efforts to “convert” gay persons, and, in some cases, supported the Anti-Gay bill.  Val Kalende, the Chair of the Board at Freedom and Roam Uganda stated that “David’s death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S Evangelicals in 2009. The Ugandan Government and the so-called U.S Evangelicals must take responsibility for David’s blood!”

They note that Kato had been receiving death threats “since his face was put on the front page of Rolling Stone Magazine, which called for his death and the death of all homosexuals. David’s death comes directly after the Supreme Court of Uganda ruled that people must stop inciting violence against homosexuals and must respect the right to privacy and human dignity.”

U.S. groups also reacted swiftly. “David Kato’s death is a tragic loss to the human rights community,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “David had faced the increased threats to Ugandan LGBT people bravely and will be sorely missed.”

Burnett also called on President Museveni to “categorically reject the hate that lies behind this bill, and instead encourage tolerance of divergent views of sexuality and protect vulnerable minorities.”

In a statement urging Ugandan authorities to “quickly and thoroughly investigate and prosecute those responsible for this heinous act,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said:

David Kato tirelessly devoted himself to improving the lives of others. As an advocate for the group Sexual Minorities Uganda, he worked to defend the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. His efforts resulted in groundbreaking recognition for Uganda’s LGBT community, including the Uganda Human Rights Commission’s October 2010 statement on the unconstitutionality of Uganda’s draft “anti-homosexuality bill” and the Ugandan High Court’s January 3 ruling safeguarding all Ugandans’ right to privacy and the preservation of human dignity. His tragic death underscores how critical it is that both the government and the people of Uganda, along with the international community, speak out against the discrimination, harassment, and intimidation of Uganda’s LGBT community, and work together to ensure that all individuals are accorded the same rights and dignity to which each and every person is entitled.

Human Rights Watch and other groups also called for a thorough investigation.  In its statement today, HRW called on the government to “ensure that members of Uganda’s LGBT community have adequate protection from violence and take prompt action against all threats or hate speech likely to incite violence, discrimination, or hostility toward them.”

Ugandan advocates have vowed to press on with their struggle.

Speaking about what the death of David means in the struggle for equality, Frank Mugisha, the Executive Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda said:

“No form of intimidation will stop our cause. The death of David will only be honoured when the struggle for justice and equality is won. David is gone and many of us will follow, but the struggle will be won. David wanted to see a Uganda where all people will be treated equally despite their sexual orientation.”

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