Ugandan court invalidates anti-gay law

A Ugandan court on Friday invalidated the anti-gay bill signed into law earlier this year, with the cheers of activists and other groups who called the measure draconian and wanted it repealed from the get go.

The Constitutional Court declared the law illegal because they cited that it was passed during the parliamentary session that lacked a quorum.

Activists erupted after the court said that the law was “null and void,” but some stated that the fight was not over: The state could appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court and legislators might try to reintroduce new measures. Also, a colonial-era law criminalizes sex acts “against the order of nature” and still remains in effect in Uganda. That means that arrests can and probably will continue

The law provided jail terms of up to life for those convicted of engaging in homosexuality. It also allowed for jail terms for those convicted of the offenses of “attempted homosexuality” as well as the “promotion of homosexuality.”

Although the legislation has had support in Uganda, it was condemned throughout the West.

The U.S. withheld or redirected funding to some Ugandan institutions accused of involvement in the rights abuses, but the ruling on Friday might win the Ugandan delegation more support in the U.S. next week as it goes to Washington for a gathering led by President Obama.

The panel of judges on the country’s Constitutional Court said that the speaker of parliament acted illegally when she allowed a vote on the measure despite three objections, including one from the country’s prime minister, over the lack of a quorum when the bill was passed late last year.

“The speaker was obliged to ensure that there was a quorum,” the court said. “We come to the conclusion that she acted illegally.”

The courtroom was packed with Ugandans either opposing or supporting the measure.

Frank Mugisha stated that the ruling was a “step forward” for gay rights. He was, however, concerned about possible retaliation.

Ugandan lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi said that the ruling “upholds the rule of law and constitutionalism in Uganda.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the decision was a “victory for the rule of law. He pays tribute to all those who contributed to this step forward, particularly the human rights activists in Uganda who spoke out at great personal risk.”

Lawyers and activists challenged the law after it was enacted in February on the grounds that it was illegally passed and that it violated rights guaranteed in Uganda’s constitution.

The court ruled on Friday that the petition had been disposed of since the law was illegally passed in the first place as decided by the court.

Nicholas Opiyo, a lawyer, welcomed the ruling but also said that there is a missed opportunity to debate the substance of the law. “The ideal situation would have been to deal with the other issues of the law, to sort out this thing once and for all,” Opiyo stated about the ruling.

He mentioned that the existing law that still allows for arrests of offenders. Lawmakers may also try to introduce new anti-gay measures, he warned.

Kosia Kasibayo, an attorney, said that the decision had not been made on whether to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court of Uganda.

The legislation was enacted on Feb. 24 by President Yoweri Museveni, who stated that he wanted to prevent Western groups from promoting homosexuality among African children.

Some European countries and the World Bank withheld aid over the passage of the law. It put pressure on a government which depends on Western support to implement a substantial part of their budget. Ofwono Opondo had described Western action over the law as “blackmail.”

Supporters of the measure say that they believe Museveni may have backed the ruling. Many Ugandans see the courts as lacking independence and are unlikely to make decisions strongly opposed by Museveni, who has been in power for three decades.

“This ruling has got nothing to do with the will of the people,” Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan cleric who has led street marches in support of the measure, stated about the ruling. “Unfortunately, it has everything to do with pressure from Barack Obama and the homosexuals of Europe.”

Although police say there have been no arrests of the homosexual offenders since the bill was enacted, gay leaders and activists say that suspected homosexuals have been harassed by the police as well as their landlords, sending many underground and unable to access essential services. Ugandan police also raided the offices of a U.S.-funded clinic that offered AIDS services to homosexuals.

The HIV rate among homosexual men in the capital of Uganda is about 13 percent, about double the average, according to the U.S.-based group Health GAP.