The authorities in Uganda have been accused of using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to beat and arrest LGBTQ people living in a homeless shelter.
Led by the Mayor of Nsangi Municipality, the Children of the Sun Foundation’s shelter for homeless LGBT youth in the town of Kyengera was raided by residents and security forces on the morning of 29 March.
According to the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), 23 people found at the shelter were arrested and two of them were beaten during the raid.
The individuals were also subjected to taunts from the community related to their perceived sexual orientation. They were formally charged with ‘a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease’ and ‘disobedience of lawful orders’.
A search was conducted in the shelter to find evidence of ‘homosexuality.’ Some of the items kept as evidence included bottles of PrEP, oral HIV self-testing kits and several condoms.
Two people were released from police custody for medical reasons, as was a nurse who worked at the shelter’s clinic. On Tuesday 31 April, 20 of those arrested were arraigned before the Chief Magistrates Court of Nsangi and remanded to Kabasanda Prison in Mpigi District until 29 April.
HRAPF said that the raid followed complaints by community members in the area about the “‘homosexual’ behaviour of the youths who they believed to be a bad influence in the area.” The mayor, Hajj Abdul Kiyimba, is said to have stated this could not be tolerated and is accused of personally beating some of the shelter’s residents during the raid.
The police reportedly first considered charging those arrested with having “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” but this was later changed in the context of the recent Presidential Directives on Covid-19 which require people to stay indoors (which the people at the shelter were doing).
Neela Ghoshal, a Senior Researcher at the Human Rights Watch LGBT Rights Program, said that homophobia and not concern for public health was at the root of the raid and arrests. She noted that a video seen by the organisation shows Mayor Kiyimba berating the shelter’s residents for “homosexuality” and beating them with a stick.
The arrests echo an October 2019 raid on another LGBT shelter, where police arrested 16 people after they were attacked by a mob, detained them, and subjected them to forced anal examinations. The case was eventually dropped.
Due to the closure of the courts for any matters not considered to be ‘serious offences’ because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 20 people still in jail are unlikely to be allowed to apply for bail until the country’s lockdown comes to an end.
“In the meantime, the detainees may be exposed to Covid-19 in prison. If any become ill or die, the Ugandan authorities will bear responsibility,” said Ghoshal.
HRAPF has urged the Ugandan government “to respect human rights and protect vulnerable groups even as the fight against COVID-19 goes on.”
Under colonial-era legislation criminalising gay sex in Uganda, those found guilty of homosexuality face life in prison.