Free! Dr Paul Semugoma (right) and his happy partner Brian Kanyemba

The Department of Home Affairs has bowed to activists’ demands and released internationally known Ugandan activist Dr Paul Semugoma and will allow him to stay in South Africa.

On Thursday, the department faced a contempt of court application by civil society groups at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg after officials refused to release Semugoma from detention at O.R. Tambo airport, despite an earlier court order to do so.

The judge ordered the two parties to negotiate and, after activists said that they would apply for asylum for Semugoma, the department returned with an offer to release the doctor. They also agreed to provide him with an Exceptional Skills Permit, allowing him to work in South Africa.

According to Steve Letsike, Civil Society Chairperson of the South African National AIDS Council, the judge approved the deal but “noted on the record that the department did in fact not comply with his earlier judgement.”

Activists rushed to the airport where, just before 5pm, Semugoma was released from immigration custody and was finally reunited with his partner Brian Kanyemba. Writing on Facebook on Friday, Semugoma described his ordeal as “a nightmare.”

“I was in a small room with a steady in/out flow of others similarly detained, cut off from net, phone, etc while the events unfolded. If it was a movie, it would be a blockbuster. I would be the main character, but most of the time, the only scenes showing me would be of me bored on a bunker bed with a thin mattress, trying to sleep the hours away, or pacing the room, or listening to tales of the others’ miseries,” he wrote.

Semugoma profusely thanked those who helped secure his release and expressed his admiration for Kanyemba, who was with him when he was detained. “Was never so proud of him as when he said, before the customs officials, ‘He is my partner, you cannot send him to Uganda’. So fearless, so openly!!! I was amazed, wanted to give him a kiss there and then.”

Semugoma, who has lived in South Africa since 2011 on a visitor’s permit and has volunteered in the HIV/Aids field, was detained at the airport after he arrived from an HIV prevention meeting in Zimbabwe on Monday, apparently because his visitors’ visa had expired. He had previously been allowed to travel numerous times in and out the country pending the Exceptional Skills Permit, the application for which Home Affairs lost twice.

On Wednesday, immigration officials attempted to force Semugoma onto a flight to Uganda, despite the court order to release him, but he refused. He has been a vocal critic of his homeland’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill and feared possible persecution on his return.

Letsike told Mambaonline that the department’s procedural handling of Semugoma’s case was “a failure of democracy.”

“This took Paul two years of applying for the permit and then they did it in two to three hours. What changed their mind? How has South Africa applied democracy here?” she asked.

Letsike described Semugoma’s release as a victory. “Civil society has held the state to account,” she said.

Some of the groups that helped fight Semugoma’s cause included the SANAC Civil Society Sector, the Treatment Action Campaign, Section 27, the Anova Health Institute, Sonke Gender Justice and the Coalition of African Lesbians.

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