A reluctant hero of Uganda's gay rights

David Cecil defied an official ban to put a play about homosexuality on the stage. Now the British producer is fighting to stay out of jail

Kampala

Just over a month ago, the British producer David Cecil was adamant that he was no campaigner, agitator or human-rights hero. He simply wanted to put on a play in Uganda that was about something other than water sanitation or the correct way to hang your mosquito net. "I'm not coming here as a missionary trying to save Ugandan culture," he said in an interview on 12 August.

"I live here. I want to go to the theatre. But if every time I go to the theatre it's someone telling me about water sanitation or Aids, I get bored and I feel patronised. The primary intention that Beau [British playwright Beau Hopkins] and I had was to make a piece of drama that was not issues-based."

And so The River and The Mountain was born, a tragicomic tale of a gay businessman trying to get by in Uganda in a murky world of power-grabbing, corruption and revenge. At its climax, the play's hero, Samson, is murdered by his machete-wielding colleagues after they've been whipped into a homophobic frenzy.

Given a surge in attacks targeting the gay community in deeply conservative Uganda – where homosexual acts are illegal and a bill was tabled proposing the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality" – his comment that the play may "cause a controversy" seems a bit of an understatement.

Fast forward one month and Mr Cecil is facing two years in jail on charges of "disobeying lawful orders". He is accused of ignoring a letter from Uganda's Media Council on 16 August, warning that The River and The Mountain "is not to be staged in any theatre or public place in Uganda" until "official clearance" was secured, with the script reviewed. The play went ahead and premiered at the cultural centre Mr Cecil runs in Kampala the next night. But performances scheduled that month in the city's National Theatre were cancelled on the eve of their premiere. Mr Cecil was arrested, charged and held for four nights. He was forced to forfeit his passport before being released on bail of 500,000 Ugandan shillings (£122).

The producer has since become a cause célèbre. A petition expressing anger over his detention and prosecution had this week attracted more than 2,300 supporters, including Mike Leigh, Stephen Fry, Sandi Toksvig and Simon Callow. "I can't express adequately my feelings about this, a) because they're mixed, and b) because I'm genuinely battling between feeling like I want to fall at their feet and kiss their feet and thinking, 'God I wished they'd consulted me about this before'," Mr Cecil said in an interview with The Independent last Friday, just days after being released from Luzira Prison.

Perhaps wary of his trial hearing on 18 October, Mr Cecil, 34, insisted: "It was never the intention of this play to promote gay rights." He was particularly concerned about the potential consequences of the petition for his friends and family.

"What's happened that I'm very upset and disturbed about, particularly with regard to my case and my friends and family here [in Uganda], is that well-meaning people from the international rights movements have seen this case as a way of attacking the Ugandan government and I would like to say on record that that is very, very irresponsible," he said. "Because what they're doing is they're actually trying to accelerate a process that might already be in place, and they're doing so using a case that's wholly inappropriate, because I'm not a gay rights activist and never have been."

His reluctance to embrace the role of campaigner perhaps speaks of the climate of fear in Uganda. Clare Byarugaba, the coordinator of the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, says his arrest is "simply a continuation of government's intimidation towards any sort of LGBTI [the country's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Intersex group] organising". "Unfortunately, it has now moved from the NGO world to the arts and social scene," she added.

In February, a gay rights meeting was raided by the Ethics and Integrity Minister, Simon Lokodo, accompanied by Ugandan police. This came days after the anti-homosexuality bill was re-tabled in the country's Parliament. The architect of the bill, MP David Bahati, is reported to have said he will drop the death penalty provision after fierce international condemnation, but the bill still increases the punishment for "homosexual offences" from 14 years in prison to life. Mr Lokodo, who did not respond to requests for comment, recently reiterated in the Ugandan media that he was committed to "dispersing any gathering organised by the gays".

Yet members of the LGBTI community are determined to make their voices heard. In early August they pulled off the unthinkable: the first week-long Gay Pride festival, featuring activities in Kampala with 250 people and a parade. Despite three participants being arrested, wrongly tipped off that an illegal gay marriage was taking place, the event was considered a great achievement. "In 2009 when they introduced the bill, the kill the gay bill, we didn't know what to do. We were scattered, we were running to neighbouring countries. But after some time we thought 'okay… you can't run away from the truth'," said Sandra Ntebi, vice-chair of the national LGBTI security team.

But there is still a long way to go before the gay community feels safe, and Mr Cecil's arrest is a huge setback for artists hoping to challenge the prejudices. One author, who refused to give his name out of fear for his safety, has been trying to find a publisher for a thriller about a gay doctor set in "an imaginary time when the anti-gay bill has been passed into law". "My wish is to have as many people across the globe as possible read the book in the hope that it would stimulate constructive debate about the whole 'kill the gays bill' farce," said the author.

"[But] the arrest and detention [of Mr Cecil] got me thinking that if a foreigner could be arrested for staging a play, what would happen to me in the event that the book got published? I started to fear for my life, so much so that when I recently received a rejection letter from a South African publisher I'd submitted a proposal to, my first response was to sigh with relief instead of frown in frustration."

Mr Cecil, who has lived in Uganda for three years where he also makes films and lectures at Kampala universities, says he is "fairly confident" that his defence team will keep him out of jail, but insists that any real reform has to come "from within Uganda if it's going to come at all [and] if it's going to be meaningful and durable".

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