A court in Uganda this week rejected bail for 19 members of the LGBT community who were arrested for gathering in public in violation of the coronavirus lockdown. Police arrested the men last month at a shelter for sexual minorities. Their lawyer argues the men, who range in age from 19 to 32, were targeted because of their sexual orientation.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists in Uganda have expressed concern over what they say is a deliberate violation of their community members’ rights.
On March 29, police arrested 23 members of an LGBT shelter, the Children of the Sun Foundation, in the town of Kyengera, 10 kilometers southwest of Kampala. Four of the men were released on medical grounds, while the others were presented to court and remanded to prison.
On the day of the arrest, the local mayor was videotaped asking the men who their parents were and hitting one of them on the hands with a huge cane. The men were also made to face the camera to reveal their faces.
On Tuesday, Adrian Juuko, a lawyer for activist group Sexual Minorities Uganda, petitioned the High Court in Kampala for an emergency bail application, as the lower court that would hear the case was not operating.
“COVID-19 was used as an excuse to get them remanded to prison. And COVID is still being used as an excuse not to bring them to court. If you look at the letter that was given to us by the prison authorities, they said that, we cannot allow lawyers to access the prison because of the current lockdown due to COVID-19. Now, no one was demanding for physical access; they could have given us access through the telephone. So, that was just an excuse. They are not doing what they are supposed to do, and in the process, they are violating rights,” Juuko said.
The defendants have been charged with conducting an act likely to cause the spread of an infectious disease, namely COVID-19, which is caused by the coronavirus.
Patrick Onyango, the deputy spokesperson for the Kampala police, said officers made the arrests after local residents complained about the gathering.
“They were not being targeted because they are gay. It was the community that saw that these people are violating the presidential directives, and informed police. And these were more than 10; they were 23 in number. So, police had to act according to the directive and according to the law,” Onyango said.
Ugandan authorities have outlawed any gathering of more than five people in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, and police have been enforcing the rules, arresting more than 400 people last week for alleged violations.
On Monday, the U.N. human rights office said in a statement that any emergency response linked to COVID-19 must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory. They said that in Uganda, authorities are using their emergency powers to act arbitrarily.
Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, said many LGBT shelters have had to change their policies because of the crackdowns. The shelters sometimes house youths who have been kicked out of their homes by their families.
“We’ve only had violations towards LGBT persons especially towards the shelters from local councils and law enforcers in those areas. People have had even to shift or reduce the number of people who were staying in certain shelters because of the law enforcers,” Mugisha said.
The 19 men will remain in jail until a court hearing on May 12, unless the High Court grants them bail before then.