KAMPALA: 67 people are facing charges in Uganda after police raided a gay bar which is considered to be one of the last safe spaces for the Ugandan LGBTQI community.
According to The Independent, investigators in the central African nation arrested 127 people at the underground RAM bar in the capital of Kambala, following reports of opium and shisha [water pipe] smoking at 2am on Monday 11 November.
Of the 127 arrested, 67 have been imprisoned without bail and charged with ‘common nuisance’ last Tuesday. Now, the group could face up to a year in prison if found guilty, a lawyer for the group, Patricia Kimera told PinkNews.
Patrons of the LGBTQI-friendly bar were reportedly dragged and thrown onto police trucks, with one person telling Human Rights Watch that police arrested everyone in the bar indiscriminately, in what appears to be an assault on the LGBTQI community due to an increase in nationwide homophobic sentiment.
LGBTQI activist Raymond Karuhanga told Reuters the Ugandan authorities’ actions were designed to silence the already marginalised community.
“This is just a homophobic attack,” he said.
“These were people in a club, not even on the streets. They were having fun, listening to music. Then you arrest almost 130 and charge them with being a public nuisance … They just want to silence us as a community.”
The RAM bar where the raid took place has been considered a haven for Uganda’s LGBTQI community for the past seven years, according to human rights group, OutRight Action International.
Ugandan human rights lawyer, Nicholas Opiyo, confirmed to NBC News that RAM bar was popular with Kampala’s LGBTQI community, as it stood as one of Uganda’s few judgement-free venues. However, police spokesman, Patrick Onyango rejected activists’ claims that the site was targeted for anti-gay reasons, despite RAM being the only venue to undergo raids last weekend.
“We are not targeting them and we will not,” Onyango said.
“What you heard in court are the charges [of common nuisance] that the state attorney proffered.”
Despite police allegations that those arrested were in possession drugs, gay rights activist Kasha Jacqueline rejects these claims.
“The past has shown that it is difficult to prosecute anyone for being LGBT,” Jacqueline said in a media statement.
“Using trumped-up drug charges is a new and frightening tactic; one which is really hard to tackle and will make our battle even tougher.”
The raids only add to growing concerns about homophobia in the Christian-majority nation, after Uganda announced plans in October for a bill that would impose the death penalty on homosexuals.
The bill—colloquially known as “Kill the Gays” in Uganda—was nullified five years ago on a technicality. But in early October, the Ugandan government said that it planned to resurrect it within weeks.
Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo told the Reuters at the time that the bill would end people’s involvement and “recruitment” into homosexuality.
The government has since back-pedalled on the bill’s reintroduction but anti-gay sentiments inflamed to the point where 28-year-old Brian Wasswa, a Ugandan LGBTQI activist, was bludgeoned to death.
Wasswa, who identified as gay and gender-nonconforming, worked as a paralegal for the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), a legal aid organisation that supports vulnerable communities, including LGBTQI people.
Ugandan authorities also arrested sixteen LGBTIQ activists on suspicion of gay sex and subjected them to forced anal examinations in late October. Police officers found condoms, lubricants and antiretroviral drugs at the sexual health charity, Let’s Walk Uganda located near Kampala, where the activists worked and lived.
Senior researcher in the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch (HRW), Neela Ghoshal, confirmed in 2016 that the practice of forced anal examination not only lacks evidentiary value but is also a form of cruel, painful and degrading treatment which victims experience as a form of sexual violence.
The practice often involves doctors or other medical professionals forcibly inserting their fingers and other objects into the anus of the accused.
“Forced anal exams are invasive, intrusive, and profoundly humiliating, and clearly violate governments’ human rights obligations,” she said.