Ugandan police are facing pressure from activists and international human rights organisations after 20 homeless LGBTQI people were jailed for disobeying social distancing rules and risking the spread of COVID-19.
Fourteen gay men, two bisexual men and four transgender women were arrested on Sunday last week after police raided The Children of the Sun Foundations shelter for homeless LGBTQI youth, located on the outskirts of Uganda’s capital, Kampala.
The imprisonment of the 20 people has drawn criticism from campaigners who say that police were abusing the newly introduced COVID-19 restrictions to target sexual minorities.
Uganda is one of the toughest places to exist as an LGBTQI individual, where gay sex is still a criminal act that is possibly punishable with a life sentence.
Ugandan Police spokesperson, Patrick Onyango said that those arrested were disobeying COVID-19 restrictions on social distancing by “congesting in a school-like-dormitory setting within a small house” despite a ban on gatherings of more than 10, which has been reduced to five.
Onyango also told Reuters that the detainees were not targeted because of their sexual orientation, despite allegations made by LGBTQI campaigners that the new social-distancing measures are being used as a ‘trojan-horse’
“We still have offences of unnatural sex in our law books,” he said.
“We would charge them with that law, but we are charging them with those counts as you can see.”
The group are now on remand and will appear in court on April 29.
However, due to the closure of the courts for any matters not considered to be ‘serious offences’ the 20 people still in jail are unlikely to be allowed to apply for bail until the lockdown ends.
While 23 people were initially arrested at the house in Kyengera, a town near Kampala, three people were released without charges due to ill health.
Two charges were laid against the group – disobedience of lawful order and committing neglectful acts likely to spread infection of disease – which carry a maximum of two and seven years imprisonment each.
Activists in Uganda say that the pandemic has contributed to another spike in homophobic rhetoric, with the LGBTQI community now being blamed by some for the spread of COVID-19.
The house in Kyengera is a known shelter for LGBTQI people seeking community as well as treatment for HIV/AIDS and has been a previous target for police raids.
The executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, Frank Mugisha, said that the arrests were “a clear case of discrimination” against the LGBTQI community, noting that the lockdown-related charges were only used when there was no other justification for jailing the group.
Mushiga also has expressed concerns for the group’s wellbeing as “some of them are on AIDS medication,” which they are unlikely to be able to access in prison – as well as the renewed chance of exposure to COVID-19 while in prison.
“It is evident that they were arrested because of their homosexuality,” he said.
“The arrests were initially around homophobia and transphobia because neighbours reported them and so the security forces came and raided them. These people were at home and they all know each other.
“Now they are putting them in prison where they will be more at risk.”
A lawyer with Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, Patricia Kimera, confirmed with the Jakarta Post that the COVID-19 pandemic was used as a blanket offence for the group’s sexual orientation.
“They are always using alternative charges to arrest people for unnatural offences so it (COVID-19) just worked perfectly for them,” she said.
“But definitely the reason they have been arrested is their sexual orientation.”