A Ugandan court essentially sanctioned a crackdown on LGBTI rights organizations in a ruling issued Monday morning, worrying activists that government officials will be further empowered to pursue a witch hunt among civil society organizations under the guise of combating homosexuality.
Although LGBTI activists plan to appeal the ruling, High Court Judge Steven Musota dismissed the case they brought against Ugandan Minister of Ethics Simon Lokodo. The case alleged that Lokodo had violated their rights when he shut down a training workshop for LGBTI activists organized in 2012 by a Ugandan organization Freedom and Roam Uganda in partnership with the Swedish organization RFSL.
A written version of the ruling is not yet available, but according to two of the plaintiffs in the case, Musota held that Lokodo did not violate their basic rights because the event was promoting homosexuality, an illegal activity.
"I think this is like a second or third nail into our coffin," said Geoffrey Ogwaro, one of the plaintiffs and co-chair of the coalition opposing the newly enacted Anti-Homosexuality Act, which criminalizes "abetting" homosexuality as well as imposing up to a life sentence for those found to have engaged in same-sex relationships. "It's making it really hard for any organization to function."
Kasha Jacqueline, another plaintiff and the organizer of Freedom and Roam at the time of the raid, told BuzzFeed that she intended to appeal. The event was not "promoting homosexuality," she said, but rather was educating LGBTI activists in skills like project planning and organizational leadership. And though sodomy was a crime under a law on the books since Uganda was a British colony, there was no statute that criminalized promoting LGBT rights in 2012.
"This isn't just about anti-gay laws — it's a politically motivated stance" that the Ugandan government is taking, Kasha said by phone from Uganda. The real goal is to crush civil society, she said, and the crackdown on LGBT rights is just a vehicle.
Kasha said she believes it's also a way for Lokodo to build up the power of the Ethics Ministry, which has very little formal jurisdiction.
"This has already been Lokodo's main aim, to shut down civil society in general," Kasha said. "He doesn't really have the mandate to do that, so he's using the Anti-Homosexuality Act."
The verdict is especially ominous following recent revelations that Lokodo's office and the Office of the Prime Minister opened investigations into the Refugee Law Project, one of the largest NGOs in Uganda, within weeks of the anti-LGBT law's enactment.
While Ogwaro is optimistic the ruling could be reversed on appeal, he said that Lokodo will interpret today's ruling as saying "now he has the power to do anything he wants."