Ugandan lawmakers hold hearings on anti-gay bill

Supporter says death penalty provision is ‘something we have moved away from,’ but measure expected to pass if it’s voted on this week

GODFREY OLUKYA | Associated Press

KAMPALA, Uganda — A Ugandan parliament committee on Monday held a second day of hearings on a controversial anti-gay bill that attracted international condemnation for its harsh penalties. Lawmakers indicated the bill could be voted on this week.

The bill was first proposed in 2009 but made little progress after a storm of criticism over a death penalty provision in the original bill. A committee meeting last Friday was its first public airing since its proposal 18 months ago.

The bill’s author, David Bahati, told The Associated Press last month that the death penalty provision in the bill was “something we have moved away from.” The bill is now undergoing debate and negotiations, so a new version would likely be presented before a final vote is held.

One of the bill’s backers, an anti-gay pastor named Martin Ssempa, told the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee on Monday that he does not support the death penalty provision. He said instead that gays should face up to seven years in prison.

“The parliament should be given the opportunity to discuss and pass the bill, because homosexuality is killing our society,” Ssempa told the committee.

Retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo said the bill will not stop homosexuality but would instead turn Uganda into a police state and could increase the spread of HIV/AIDS because gay Ugandans would fear seeking treatment.

Senyonjo also disputed a common claim by backers of the anti-gay bill, who say school children are being recruited by gays.

“They naturally become so,” he said.

Homosexuality is highly unpopular in Uganda, and pastors in this Christian country speak out loudly against the practice. Bahati has said he thinks the bill would become law if voted on by legislators.

Gay activists say anti-gay sentiment in Uganda has increased since the bill’s introduction. More gays are being harassed because of media attention and because church leaders have been preaching for the bill’s passage.

Bahati’s original bill carried harsh provisions. The original bill would mandate a death sentence for active homosexuals living with HIV or in cases of same-sex rape. “Serial offenders” also would face capital punishment. Anyone convicted of a homosexual act would face life imprisonment.

Anyone who “aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage of acts of homosexuality” would face seven years in prison. Landlords who rent rooms or homes to homosexuals also could get seven years.

Some, all or none of those provision could change during parliament’s negotiations.

The New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said in a statement last week that it was concerned that the “heinous” piece of legislation could become law.

“Governments, world religious and political leaders, and HIV prevention experts have all appealed to Ugandan parliamentarians to put their distaste and fear of LGBT people aside and use their better judgment,” said Cary Alan Johnson, the group’s executive director. LGBT stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.”

Johnson said the bill was being debated now to divert attention from recent political demonstrations in Uganda that have attracted police crackdowns. Human Rights Watch says security forces killed nine people in the recent marches.

Stephen Tashobya, the head of the parliament committee, said it is time legislators give the bill priority. He said a report on the bill would be ready by today and could be presented to parliament by the end of the week.

“Due to public demand the committee has decided to deal with bill,” Tashobya said. “The bill has generated a lot of interest from members of the public and members of parliament and that is why we spared some time deal with before this parliament ends.”

Frank Mugisha, the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a gay rights group, said that if parliament takes up the bill he believes it will be passed. However, parliament’s session ends this week and it is not clear if there is enough time to deal with the legislation this session.

Bahati has said the bill can be dealt with next session if parliament runs out of time.

—  John Wright

Death penalty provision likely to be removed from anti-gay bill in Uganda

Measure still carries life imprisonment for those convicted of homosexual acts

JASON STRAZIUSO  |  Associated Press

KAMPALA, Uganda — The Ugandan parliamentarian behind an anti-gay bill that attracted worldwide condemnation said the most controversial part of the legislation — the death penalty provision — is likely to be dropped from the bill.

David Bahati said if the parliament committee the bill currently sits before recommends that the death penalty provision be removed, “I would concede.”

“The death penalty is something we have moved away from,” Bahati told The Associated Press in an interview.

After Bahati’s anti-gay bill was proposed some 18 months ago, it attracted international condemnation, including from President Barack Obama. Since the initial uproar, the bill has languished in committee.

But Stephen Tashobya, the chairman of the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee, said the legislation may come up for a vote before parliament’s session ends May 12.

“We shall try and see how far we can go with the bill. It may be possible. We are doing all we can. We have limited time,” he said Tuesday, before adding: “Many people have expressed concern about that provision providing for the death sentence and I’m sure when we start hearings on that bill we will hear many more concerns.”

Homosexuality is highly unpopular in Uganda, and pastors in this Christian country speak out loudly against the practice. Bahati said he thinks the bill would become law if voted on by legislators.

“I can guarantee you I have not seen any member of parliament who is opposed to it,” he said.

Frank Mugisha, the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a gay rights group, said anti-gay sentiment in Uganda has increased since the bill’s introduction. More gays are being harassed, he said, because of media attention and because church leaders have been preaching for the bill’s passage to congregations.

Bahati’s original bill carried harsh provisions. The original bill would mandate a death sentence for active homosexuals living with HIV or in cases of same-sex rape. “Serial offenders” also could face capital punishment, but the legislation did not define the term. Anyone convicted of a homosexual act would face life imprisonment.

Anyone who “aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage of acts of homosexuality” would face seven years in prison. Landlords who rent rooms or homes to homosexuals also could get seven years.

“If the bill passes we cannot even be allowed to do our work,” Mugisha said.

Last year a tabloid newspaper in Uganda published the names and photos of men it alleged were gay. One cover included the words “Hang Them.” Shortly afterward, in January, a prominent gay rights activist whose picture was published was bludgeoned to death, though authorities contend David Kato’s sexual orientation had nothing to do with the killing.

Mugisha said the murder was not thoroughly investigated. “I think it had to do with all the hate that has been spread. All avenues lead to a homophobia-based crime,” he said.

Bahati called Kato’s death regrettable.

“My reaction is that I extend condolences to the family, parents of Kato. It’s regrettable that they could find themselves in this situation, and also regrettable that he could be allowed to be used to recruit our children. But the death of Kato had nothing to do with the bill in parliament,” he said.

Bahati, 36, is serving his first term. He said that the bill has helped raise public awareness about what he calls “the dangers to our children.” Many Ugandan leaders who support the bill say that gay Ugandans recruit school children to become homosexual.

Mugisha says no one has ever been arrested for doing such a thing despite Uganda being what he called a highly homophobic country.

Bahati submitted his bill in late 2009, several months after American evangelicals attended a conference in Kampala. Those U.S. religious leaders consider same-gender relationships sinful and believe gays and lesbians can become heterosexual through prayer and counseling, fueling speculation that the Americans helped craft the bill.

Bahati said that was false and he labeled it a communication strategy and “conspiracy” by pro-gay groups in the U.S. to make his bill easier to attack.

“I didn’t meet any American evangelicals. I’ve said before we have friends in America but they have nothing to do with the bill. This actually has been an insult to suggest that Ugandans cannot think for themselves, that we have to wait for America to think for us,” he said.

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Corpus Christi school refuses GSA; Hawaii governor signs civil unions bill

Nikki Peet, 17, wants to start a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance at Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi. But school officials won’t allow it.

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. In an apparent violation of federal law, Flour Bluff High School in Corpus Christi is refusing to allow students to start a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance. After reading the story, go here to get contact info for the school, then give them a call.

2. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed civil unions into law Wednesday, making Hawaii the seventh state in the nation to offer the legal status to same-sex couples. The law takes effect Jan. 1. “E Komo Mai: It means all are welcome,” Abercrombie said in remarks before signing the bill into law. “This signing today of this measure says to all of the world that they are welcome. That everyone is a brother or sister here in paradise.”

3. Two GOP lawmakers in Tennessee have introduced a bill that would prohibit schools from discussing any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality. “The Don’t Say Gay bill raises all kinds of issues about anti-gay bias, free speech and government overreach,” said Ben Byers with the Tennessee Equality Project. “It limits what teachers and students are able to discuss in the classroom. It means they can’t talk about gay issues or sexuality even with students who may be gay or have gay family.”

—  John Wright

What’s Brewing: Anti-gay bill clears Montana House; Maryland Senate takes up marriage

Nathan Bowen

Your weekday morning blend from Instant Tea:

1. The Montana House approved a bill that would nullify local LGBT discrimination protections. “Missoula’s Democratic legislators were infuriated by the passage of House Bill 516, by Rep. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre. Her bill passed 60-39 and faces a final House vote before heading to the Senate. Sixty Republicans voted for it. All 32 Democrats voted opposed it, joined by seven Republicans. One Republican was absent.”

2. The president of a GLBT center in Enid, Okla., is accused of sexually molesting a 15-year-old. “According to EnidGLBT.org, Nathan Bowen is President of the Enid GLBT Community Center located in the 1300 block of S. Van Buren Street. According to the police report, Bowen and the victim began texting each other sexual messages after the victim met Bowen on Friday. The molestation incident happened on Sunday after Bowen allegedly picked up the minor at a park and took him to a home in the area.”

3. The Maryland Senate will begin debate on a marriage equality bill today: “Debate on the contentious measure to allow same-sex couples to marry is expected to run into Wednesday evening and carry over to Thursday. Miller has told senators to clear their weekend schedules in case an expected filibuster extends into Saturday. The bill, which would repeal Maryland’s definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, is widely expected to clear the Senate — but there are no guarantees. Twenty-four senators have declared their support for the measure, the minimum needed for final passage.”

—  John Wright