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19 Ugandan LGBTQ+ detainees obtain favorable opinion from the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), Children of the Sun Foundation (COSF), Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFK Human Rights) welcome the opinion of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) declaring the detention of 19 LGBTQ+ Ugandans arbitrary under international law.

On March 29, 2020, the Uganda Police Force (UPF) and the Mayor of Kyengera Town Council, supported by members of the army and local council authorities raided an LGBTQ+ shelter run by the Children of the Sun Foundation (COSF), in Kyengera Town. During the raid, the officers arbitrarily arrested 23 individuals: 13 of the arrested individuals were residents of the shelter, five of the non-shelter residents were visiting from another shelter, one was a guest of a resident and one was a resident nurse.

In its initial statement following the arrests, the police claimed that they had raided the shelter and subsequently arrested the individuals for violating the COVID-19 restrictions and performing “negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease” under section 171 of the Penal code Act. However, reports later revealed that the police intended to charge the individuals with engaging in “carnal knowledge” in violation of section 145 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes same-sex sexual relations. Local media footage of the raid recorded neighbors of the shelter and leaders of the area stating that they were worried about the “homosexual behavior” of the young people in the shelter. The footage also reportedly showed the Mayor of Nsangi whipping and verbally lashing out at least two of the shelter residents while forcing them to admit that they were homosexual.

After holding the 23 individuals in custody for one night, the police released 3 of them on 30 March 2020 on health grounds. The remaining 20 individuals were arraigned and remanded to Kitalya prison until 29 April 2020. While in custody, the Ugandan authorities denied the 20 individuals access to their lawyers and subjected them to cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment. The 19 individuals endured taunting, flogging, anal examinations, scalding, and denial of access to food, sanitary facilities and medication. 19 of these filed the complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions.

“Arbitrary arrests and detention of LGBTQ+ persons for no reason except their sexual orientation and/or gender identity had become commonplace in Uganda despite constitutional prohibitions against such acts. The Working Group decision now makes it clear that this is unacceptable. We expect the police and the authorities to heed to this decision,” said Adrian Jjuuko, Executive Director of Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF).

The U.N. Working Group found that the government arbitrarily deprived the 19 Individuals of their liberty without a legal basis consistent with international human rights standards, violated their rights to a fair trial by denying them access to their lawyers and targeted them because of their perceived sexual orientation. The working group reiterated its position on detentions based on deprivation of liberty on the basis of sexual orientation, noting that it is arbitrary and prohibited under international law.

“We welcome the recent decision by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemning human rights abuses perpetrated by Ugandan state officials against 19 LGBTQ+ individuals,” said Frank Mugisha Director of Sexual Minorities Uganda Executive Director. “The decision sends a clear message to the government of Uganda and its agents to desist from actions that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community and take steps to protect and promote the human rights of all Ugandans,” he added

In its opinion, the U.N. Working Group calls on the Ugandan government to take the steps necessary to remedy the situation of the 19 individuals without delay and bring it into conformity with the relevant international norms, including those set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The working group equally called on the government to bring its laws into conformity with the present opinion and with the commitments made by Uganda under international human rights law. Although the High Court ruled in June 2020 that the denial of the 19 access to their lawyers while in detention was a violation of their rights to liberty and fair hearing and awarded damages of Uganda Shilling 5,000,000 (about USD 1400) shillings to each of the 19, the damages are yet to be paid.

“In light of the decisions of the Working Group and the Ugandan Courts, there is no uncertainty that the Ugandan authorities violated the rights of the 19 individuals in this case” said Ikechukwu Uzoma, staff attorney at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “Now, the government must fulfill its obligations under the Ugandan Constitution and International Law including by implementing the decisions and taking all necessary measures to ensure the respect and protection of the rights of all Ugandans,” he added.

Read the opinion of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions here.