A draft bill before the Ugandan parliament that seeks to impose stricter sanctions on homosexuality would drive men who have sex with men further underground, making it even more difficult for them to access HIV services, according to AIDS activists.

According to Uganda’s New Vision newspaper, the draft bill, tabled by ruling party MP David Bahati, proposes a seven-year jail term for anyone who “attempts to commit the offence” or who “aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality”.

“If this bill is passed it will be a clear violation of human rights and will push men who have sex with men even further underground than they are,” Beatrice Were, a Ugandan HIV/AIDS activist, told IRIN/PlusNews.

“Our national strategic plan for HIV/AIDS aims to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment and care, but if people are criminalised and not allowed to exist, how can they access these services?” she added.

Homosexual acts, or “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, are already criminalised in Uganda, carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Under the draft bill, “promotion of homosexuality”, including publishing information or providing funds, premises for activities, or other resources, is also punishable by a seven-year sentence or a fine of US$50,000.

If passed, the bill would see the death penalty handed down for the crime of “aggravated homosexuality” – a sexual assault committed against a member of the same sex who is under 18 or disabled. Anyone found guilty of the offence of homosexuality would be forced to take an HIV test.

“Bahati’s proposed bill also supports stigma and discrimination against HIV-positive people, and would undermine years of efforts to tackle the epidemic,” Solome Nakaweesi-Kimbugwe, a human rights activist, and Frank Mugisha, co-chair of the rights group, Sexual Minorities Uganda, said in a statement.

“Uganda has been considered a ‘best practice’ leader in the fight against HIV and AIDS,” the statement continued. “If [the bill is] passed, this leadership status would be put in serious question.”

The Uganda AIDS Commission classes men who have sex with men (MSMs) as “most at risk”, yet there are no HIV programmes targeting them and no action has been taken in response to a 2009 study by UNAIDS and the Uganda government recommending that “legal impediments to the inclusion of most-at-risk populations, including commercial sex workers, MSMs and IDUs [intravenous drug users], in the HIV/AIDS national response should be reviewed”.

“Morals do not stop HIV; what stops HIV is the evidence from science – we know that using condoms can prevent infection, using PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis] after exposure can stop infection, and ARVs [life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs] prevent mother-to-child transmission,” Were said. “People must feel comfortable enough to seek these services regardless of their sexual orientation.”

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