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Ugandan Official: Gay Bill Not Yet Foreign Policy Issue

The Ugandan foreign minister denies the government is backing away from proposed anti-gay legislation because of foreign policy implications, saying the government is still discussing its position on the issue. Gay rights activists express caution over reports the president has backed away from the bill.

Speaking to a party meeting this week, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni seemed to distance himself from an anti-gay bill that has sparked criticism from Western governments and advocacy groups.

President Museveni said recent meetings with his Western counterparts had become overrun with voiced concerns over the proposed legislation, submitted by member of parliament David Bahati. The president said the bill must now be discussed "in a manner that does not compromise our principles but also takes care of our foreign policy interests."

The remarks were the president's first public comments on the bill.

When asked by VOA if the government is considering the bill as a "foreign policy issue," Uganda Foreign Affairs Minister Okello Oryem suggested the president's remarks had been misunderstood.

"Not yet, not yet, no, because we still have to bring it to Cabinet, and then at that stage it will be decided at what level it should be dealt with," he said.

The minister said the president's remarks to party members was in response to a recent war of words in the media between senior government officials over the gay bill, with one minister stating the government's position was that the bill was "not necessary."

"What the president was trying to say was that when it comes to those kind of issues that are related to the current issues relating to homosexuality - will aid be cut, will it affect our relations with other countries, and so forth - nobody has the right to comment on those matters except him as the president, and then it will be integrated by the Foreign Affairs [ministry]," said Oryem.

The chair of a Ugandan gay rights group, Frank Mugisha, says the president's statement "does not change anything."

"The information we need to be hearing right now is for them [government officials] asking David Bahati why he came out with such a bill and why he should not withdraw it," he said.

The proposed bill began receiving international attention after news of its "draconian" punishments against practicing homosexuals, including the death penalty in certain instances.

The bill could prove a political headache for President Museveni - a self-proclaimed "born again" Christian with ties to conservative religious leaders in the United States. Domestically, the bill receives much popular support, and he is likely hesitant to come out against the bill with his re-election campaign looming.

But many in the international community, including many of his conservative friends in America, have vocally denounced the bill, and some Ugandans express concern that it could severely damage the nation's reputation and levels of foreign investment.

Mugisha says that even if the president quietly pushes for the bill to be pared down, as many now expect, the resulting legislation will be unacceptable.

"If even one small segment of that bill remains, it will still violate the rights of people," he said. "We do not anything in that bill; we demand the whole entire bill withdrawn."

Aid groups have expressed concern the bill could severely hamper the nation's fight against HIV/AIDS.