A draft anti-gay bill has been introduced in Uganda’s parliament which could see homosexuality being punished with life imprisonment and even death.

According to the text of the bill, it aims to strengthen “the nation’s capacity to deal with emerging internal and external threats to the traditional heterosexual family”.

The bill allows for lifetime imprisonment on conviction of homosexuality. It also creates a new category called “aggravated homosexuality” with provisions for the death penalty upon conviction.

Among the factors which can lead to “aggravated homosexuality” is if one partner is HIV-positive or if one of the partners is under the age of 18 or disabled. The bill would mandate HIV testing to determine eligibility for “aggravated homosexuality.”

A group of 17 local and international human rights organisations issued a statement on Thursday calling for the immediate withdrawal of the proposed legislation.

“This draft bill is clearly an attempt to divide and weaken civil society by striking at one of its most marginalised groups” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “The government may be starting here, but who will be next?”

In an attack on the freedom of expression, a new, wide-ranging provision in the bill would also forbid the “promotion of homosexuality” – including publishing information or providing funds, premises for activities, or other resources. Conviction could result in up to seven years in prison.

The bill would criminalise the legitimate work of national and international activists and organisations working for the defence and promotion of human rights in Uganda. It would also put major barriers in the path of effective HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, the groups said.

“Discrimination and punitive laws like this aimed at marginalised groups and at those often among the most affected by HIV drives people underground and does nothing to help slow down the AIDS epidemic,” said Daniel Molokele, Africa program officer at the World AIDS Campaign.

Under Uganda’s existing laws, the police already arbitrarily arrest and detain men and women accused of engaging in consensual sex with someone of the same sex, said the groups. Human rights organisations have documented cases of torture or other ill-treatment against lesbians and gay men in detention because of their sexual orientation.

“Certain provisions in this bill are illegal; they are also immoral,” said Kate Sheill, Amnesty International’s expert on sexual rights. “They criminalise a sector of society for being who they are, when what the government should be doing instead is protecting them from discrimination and abuse.”

Over recent months, there has been increased campaigning against homosexuality in Uganda, led by churches and anti-gay groups. The media have joined this campaign, and have publicly pointed to individuals they accuse of being gay or lesbian.

People suspected of being gay have faced death threats and been physically assaulted. Many have been ostracised by their families or faced discrimination, including dismissal from their place of employment.

This new draft bill includes a provision that could lead to the imprisonment for up to three years of anyone, including heterosexual people, who fails to report within 24 hours the identities of everyone they know who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, or who supports human rights for people who are.

“This inflammatory bill will be taken as further confirmation that it is okay to attack or even kill people perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,” said Victor Mukasa, of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “It is the government’s responsibility to immediately withdraw this dangerous proposal.”

The final section of the bill provides for Uganda to nullify any of its international or regional commitments that it deems “contradictory to the spirit and provisions enshrined in this Act,” something which is illegal under international law.

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