Uganda's president signs anti-gay bill in defiance of Western pressure; prison looms for gays

The Associated Press

Ugandan pupils from different schools take part in an event organised by born-again Christians to celebrate the signing of a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex, at the Omega Healing Center outside of Kampala, in Uganda Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni on Monday signed the controversial anti-gay bill into law, with penalties including 14 years in jail for first-time offenders and life imprisonment as the maximum penalty for "aggravated homosexuality", saying it is needed to deter what he called the West's "social imperialism" promoting homosexuality in Africa. (AP Photo/Stephen Wandera)

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By RODNEY MUHUMUZA, Associated Press

ENTEBBE, Uganda (AP) — Uganda's president on Monday signed an anti-gay bill that punishes gay sex with up to life in prison, a measure likely to send Uganda's beleaguered gay community further underground as the police try to implement it amid fevered anti-gay sentiment across the country.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said the bill, which goes into effect immediately, was needed because the West is promoting homosexuality in Africa.

Museveni may have defied Western pressure to shelve the bill, four years and many versions after it was introduced, but his move — likely to galvanize support ahead of presidential elections — pleased many Ugandans who repeatedly urged him to sign the legislation.

Nigeria's president similarly signed an anti-gay bill into law just over a month ago, sparking increased violence against gays who already were persecuted in mob attacks. Some watchdog groups warn a similar backlash of violence may occur in Uganda.

"Experience from other jurisdictions with similarly draconian laws, such as Nigeria or Russia, indicates that their implementation is often followed by a surge in violence against individuals thought to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said in a statement Monday. "The Ugandan government has not indicated any plans to counter such violence or to investigate potential allegations of abuse."

The Ugandan law calls for first-time offenders to be sentenced to 14 years in jail. It sets life imprisonment as the maximum penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," defined as repeated gay sex between consenting adults and acts involving a minor, a disabled person or where one partner is infected with HIV.

Uganda's new anti-gay law has been condemned around the world.

In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney called the law "abhorrent," urged its repeal and said the White House is reviewing its relationship with Uganda.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned that the law would institutionalize discrimination and could encourage harassment and violence against gays.

The office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in a statement said she is "is deeply concerned" by "draconian legislation" to criminalize homosexuality in Uganda.

At least six people have already been arrested over alleged homosexual offenses and more than a dozen have fled Uganda since lawmakers passed the bill in December, according to a prominent Ugandan gay activist, Pepe Julian Onziema.

"The president is making this decision because he has never met an openly gay person. That disappoints me," he said.

Museveni signed the bill at the presidential palace as government officials, journalists and Ugandan scientists looked on. Government officials applauded after Museveni affixed his signature. Scientists had written a report which found there is no proven genetic basis for homosexuality, Museveni said, citing it as a reason for signing the bill.

"They should rehabilitate themselves and society should assist them to do so," Museveni said after signing the bill.

Some European countries have threatened to cut aid to Uganda if the measure was enacted, though some EU officials have cautioned that interrupting development aid may not be the best reaction since it would harm Ugandans.

U.S. President Barack Obama warned that signing the bill would "complicate" the East African country's relationship with Washington. After Museveni signed the bill, the White House said the U.S. would urge Uganda's government to repeal the "abhorrent law."

"As President Obama has said, this law is more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda, it reflects poorly on the country's commitment to protecting the human rights of its people and will undermine public health, including efforts to fight HIV/AIDS," the statement said.