In a country where homosexual conduct can be punished with life imprisonment, the Ugandan government’s latest call for arrests based on sexual orientation is a grave threat to basic freedoms, Human Rights Watch has said in a letter to President Yoweri Museveni.

The letter urged the government to repeal its colonial-era sodomy law and end a long record of harassing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

On August 21, Uganda’s Radio One announced that Deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhindi had called for the criminal law to be used against lesbians and gays in Uganda.

“I call upon the relevant agencies to take appropriate action because homosexuality is an offence under the laws of Uganda,” he reportedly said. “The penal code in no uncertain terms punishes homosexuality and other unnatural offences.”

Homosexual acts are criminalised in Uganda under a sodomy law inherited from British colonial times, although punishments were substantially strengthened in 1990. Section 140 of the criminal code punishes “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” – interpreted to include consensual same sex relationships- with a maximum of life imprisonment.

“For years President Museveni’s government has drummed up homophobia and denied the basic rights of LGBT people for his own political advantage,” said Juliana Cano Nieto, researcher in the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. “If lesbians and gays can be punished simply for speaking up for their rights, the freedoms of all Ugandans are endangered.”

This announcement came a week after an organisation called Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a coalition of four LGBT organisations – Freedom and Roam Uganda, Spectrum Uganda, Integrity Uganda and Icebreakers Uganda – launched a campaign called “Let us Live in Peace.”

In a press conference in Kampala on August 16th, the group condemned discrimination and violence against LGBT people, as well as the life-threatening silence about their sexualities in HIV/AIDS prevention programs. Juliet Victor Mukasa, a SMUG leader, described how authorities raided her home in 2005 and forced her into hiding.

In response, Ethics and Integrity Minister James Nsaba Buturo told the BBC on August 17 that homosexuality was “unnatural.” He denied charges of police harassment of LGBT people, but also declared, “We know them, we have details of who they are.”

In the wake of the SMUG press conference, Pastor Martin Ssempa organised an August 21 rally in Kampala to address what he called a call for action on behalf of victims of homosexuality.” Calling homosexuality “a criminal act against the laws of nature,” Ssempa led hundreds of demonstrators demanding government action against LGBT people. They also called for the deportation of an American intern at the national newspaper the Monitor who has reported on the experiences of gays and lesbians in Uganda.

Ssempa, whose Makerere Community Church has received HIV-prevention funding through the Bush administration’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, is well-known in Uganda for his campaigns against condom use as well as homosexuality. He has burned condoms in public to condemn their use in HIV prevention.

“Harassing rights defenders and silencing discussion of sexuality threaten more than freedom—they threaten life,” said Cano Nieto. “State homophobia and well-funded fanaticism are undermining Uganda’s efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

Human Rights Watch called on the government to end its long campaign of homophobic statements by top officials, and to ensure full integration of issues of sexual orientation and gender identity into nationwide HIV prevention and care programs.

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