Uganda politicians hold hearings on anti-gay bill

 

A Ugandan parliament committee today held a second day of hearings on a controversial anti-gay bill that attracted international condemnation for its harsh penalties. Politicians indicated the bill could be voted on this week.

The bill was first proposed in 2009 but made little progress after a storm of criticism over a death penalty provision in the original bill. A committee meeting last Friday was its first public airing since its proposal 18 months ago.

The bill's author, David Bahati, told The Associated Press last month that the death penalty provision in the bill was "something we have moved away from." The bill is now undergoing debate and negotiations, so a new version would likely be presented before a final vote is held.

One of the bill's backers, an anti-gay pastor named Martin Ssempa, told the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee today that he does not support the death penalty provision. He said instead that gays should face up to seven years in prison.

"The parliament should be given the opportunity to discuss and pass the bill, because homosexuality is killing our society," Ssempa told the committee.

Retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo said the bill will not stop homosexuality but would instead turn Uganda into a police state and could increase the spread of HIV/AIDS because gay Ugandans would fear seeking treatment.

Senyonjo also disputed a common claim by backers of the anti-gay bill, who say school children are being recruited by gays.

"They naturally become so," he said.

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

Gay activists say anti-gay sentiment in Uganda has increased since the bill's introduction. More gays are being harassed because of media attention and because church leaders have been preaching for the bill's passage.

Bahati's original bill carried harsh provisions. The original bill 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.

Some, all or none of those provision could change during parliament's negotiations.

The New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said in a statement last week that it was concerned that the "heinous" piece of legislation could become law.

"Governments, world religious and political leaders, and HIV prevention experts have all appealed to Ugandan parliamentarians to put their distaste and fear of LGBT people aside and use their better judgment," said Cary Alan Johnson, the group's executive director. LGBT stands for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender."

Johnson said the bill was being debated now to divert attention from recent political demonstrations in Uganda that have attracted police crackdowns. Human Rights Watch says security forces killed nine people in the recent marches.

Stephen Tashobya, the head of the parliament committee, said it is time legislators give the bill priority. He said a report on the bill would be ready by Tuesday and could be presented to parliament by the end of the week.

"Due to public demand the committee has decided to deal with bill," Tashobya said. "The bill has generated a lot of interest from members of the public and members of parliament and that is why we spared some time deal with before this parliament ends."

Frank Mugisha, the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, a gay rights group, said that if parliament takes up the bill he believes it will be passed. However, parliament's session ends this week and it is not clear if there is enough time to deal with the legislation this session.

Bahati has said the bill can be dealt with next session if parliament runs out of time.
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