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Uganda drops anti-gay bill

Uganda's parliament appeared to have dropped plans to debate a controversial anti-gay bill after a global outcry from US leaders, rights groups and an internet campaign.

The anti-gay bill was first proposed in 2009 but wasn't debated until last Friday. The bill had been scheduled to be debated before the full parliament today but was dropped from the schedule.

The future of the bill remained murky. Today was parliament's last scheduled day of session, and President Yoweri Museveni was scheduled tomorrow to be sworn in after his February re-election. It wasn't clear if the bill could be carried forward to the next session or if the bill's author would have to offer a new bill, which he has said he will do if needed.

The original bill would mandate a death sentence in some cases, part of the reason it attracted global attention. The bill's author, David Bahati, has said a new version of the bill would not contain the death penalty, but no amended version has been released publicly.

One member of parliament, John Alimadi, said today that the bill may have been dropped from the agenda because of the worldwide outcry against it.

Online petitions from the groups Avaaz, an internet group that champions action on issues like poverty and climate change, and Allout said they had gathered more than 1.4 million signatures. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called the bill's progress deeply alarming. A US congressman said if the bill passed he would urge huge cuts in international aid, and the US State Department again voiced its opposition.

"If adopted, a bill further criminalizing homosexuality would constitute a significant step backwards for the protection of human rights in Uganda," said Hilary Fuller Renner, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs. "Respect for human rights is key to Uganda's long-term political stability and democratic development, as well as its public health and economic prosperity."

Gay rights groups say that the harassment of gays has increased in Uganda since the introduction of the bill in October 2009.

Last year a tabloid newspaper in Uganda published the names and photos of men it alleged were gay. One cover included the words "Hang Them." Shortly afterward, in January, a prominent gay rights activist whose picture was published was bludgeoned to death, though authorities contend David Kato's sexual orientation had nothing to do with the killing.

Bahati's original bill carries harsh provisions. It would mandate a death sentence for active homosexuals living with HIV or in cases of same-sex rape. "Serial offenders" also would face capital punishment. Anyone convicted of a homosexual act would face life imprisonment.

Anyone who "aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage of acts of homosexuality" would face seven years in prison. Landlords who rent rooms or homes to homosexuals also could get seven years.

If the bill is picked up by the next session, some, all or none of those provision could change during parliament negotiations.

Homosexuality is highly unpopular in Uganda, and pastors in this Christian country speak out loudly against it. Bahati has said he thinks the bill would become law if voted on.

US Rep. Barney Frank said in a statement yesterday that he was disturbed that parliamentarians were again discussing the bill. He said if it becomes law that he would urge the US government to oppose any aid to Uganda from international institutions that the US belongs to, such as the World Bank and African Development Bank.

Avaaz said it had collected more than 1 million Internet signatures from people opposed to the bill. The group wants parliament to reject the bill or Museveni to veto it if it passes.

"In 24 hours, the Ugandan Parliament may vote on a brutal new law that carries the death penalty for homosexuality. Thousands of Ugandans could face execution — just for being gay," the group's website said. "We've helped stop this bill before, and we can do it again."