The plight of  Ugandan LGBTQI communities has been in the headlines for many years now, and always for the wrong reasons. Now the Ugandan government has come under fire for using COVID-19 as an excuse to further clamp down on human rights.

One person who knows all too well of these abuses of power is 21-year-old Ronald Ssenyonga. In an emotional interview with The Guardian, Ssenyonga detailed how in March, on an unassuming Sunday under the guise of “negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease” local security agencies raided their hostel – a shelter run by non-profit group, Children Of The Sun.

Ssenyonga was among 20 individuals arrested, including 14 gay men, two bisexual men and four transgender women.

Ssenyonga recalled how some people were still in bed at the shelter, while others were on the veranda washing their faces with water splashed from colourful plastic cups. Others had their toothbrushes in their hands as the men in green boots kicked the gate open. Everyone started running. But there was nowhere to go. The police gathered them all together and ordered them to sit down and face journalists who had been brought along on the raid.

“After the ‘photoshoot’, they tied us like slaves and marched us through a trading centre full of homophobic people. Some people slapped us. Others hit us with stones or whatever they could find. They shouted and condemned us,” Ssenyonga added.

 At the time of the raids, police spokesperson, Patrick Onyango, said the detainees had been disobeying distancing rules by “congesting in a school-like dormitory setting within a small house” despite a ban at the time on gatherings of more than 10 people, since reduced to five. Onyango then went on to deny allegations made by LGBTQI campaigners that they were targeted because of their sexual orientation.

“We still have offences of unnatural sex in our law books,” Onyango told Reuters. “We would charge them with that law, but we are charging them with those counts, as you can see.”

Following the raid, the detainees were transferred to a local prison where, they claim to have spent a month being taunted and tortured’ and were prevented from seeing their lawyers – an action Ugandan courts later ruled was a violation of their right to a fair hearing. 

“They thought we were nobody, and we had no one on our side. They burned us with firewood and forced us to confess that we are gay. They used abnormal size sticks and iron bars [to beat us], and they turned other prisoners against us,” Ssenyonga said.

It was these claims of mistreatment while in custody which led their legal aid provider, Human Rights Awareness And Promotion Forum, to sue the government over the torture the men say they underwent while in prison.

Prior to the raid Ssenyonga said that he was looking forward to starting university and was awaiting his A-level results “but after they showed my face in the video, everyone knows I am gay. I am too ashamed to show my face at school. So, I do not know what the future holds when I cannot even go out to pick up my results.”

Executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, Frank Mugisha, said that the arrests were “a clear case of discrimination” against the LGBTQI community.

“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.”

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