The Ugandan government has begun restricting the activities of one of the country's largest human rights organizations under allegations that it has been engaged in the "promotion of homosexuality," a crime under the Anti-Homosexuality Act that became law in February.
The Refugee Law Project, whose office hosts the coalition of organizations opposing the anti-LGBT law, has been under investigation by the officials in the prime minister's office for "promoting homosexuality" since mid-March. The organization has been trying to resolve the matter quietly, but activists in Uganda say privately the investigation could be the beginning of an ominous political turn they have long feared — that the law would work not only to destroy the lives of hundreds of LGBT individuals, but also would become a weapon used against critics of the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
Ethics Minister Simon Lokodo said his office had "recommended that [RLP] be suspended pending further investigation" because the group had been "promoting homosexuality and lesbianism," NTV, one of Uganda's leading television stations, reported Tuesday. The report said, "The allegation against the Refugee Law Project is that it has been working with ... [the coalition] which has been handling the petition ... against the Anti-Homosexuality Act" which is due to be heard by the Constitutional Court later this month.
The RLP's collaboration in opposing the anti-LGBT law is a small part of its work. With a staff of 110, it works primarily on issues affecting the more than 265,000 displaced foreigners now estimated to be in Uganda. It also provides legal assistance to a large number of clients, and currently handles around 3,000 open cases, said its director, Chris Dolan.
The Anti-Homosexuality Act, which criminalizes advocating LGBT rights and imposes up to a lifetime sentence for homosexuality, is just one of many measures enacted by the Museveni regime targeting freedom of expression. A vaguely worded Anti-Pornography Act went into law around the same time as the Anti-Homosexuality Act, potentially criminalizing a broad range of expression if authorities deem it to be sexual. The government also has broad powers to monitor electronic communications and regulate NGOs, and President Museveni has recently moved to shut down media outlets in retaliation for their reporting and has blocked opposition rallies.
The Ugandan government began targeting the Refugee Law Project under the anti-LGBT law almost as soon as it went on the books. On March 14, just three weeks after Museveni signed the bill into law, the top official for refugee affairs inside the prime minister's office ordered commandants of refugee camps to deny access to RLP staff. On May 20, Dolan told BuzzFeed he received another letter from the prime minister's office notifying him the group was also barred from working with clients in its Kampala headquarters.
The organization was working to smooth things over with the prime minister's office when Lokodo, who has been one of the most vocal supporters of the anti-LGBT law in Museveni's cabinet, ratcheted things up a notch. His office does not have any direct enforcement power, so he wrote a letter in late May to the minister of internal affairs demanding more investigations of RLP, Dolan told BuzzFeed. The NTV broadcast, in which Lokodo was the only government official interviewed, suggests he may have been the one to make the investigation public.
Dolan said his group has been asking the government to clarify what activities allegedly constituted the promotion of homosexuality. The investigation was opened so soon after the law was enacted, Dolan said, that it seemed unlikely that it was based on anything other than the group's role in challenging the anti-LGBT act and other disputes in the courts. RLP is suing Lokodo over the shutdown of human rights workshops the organization put together in 2012, a matter that is still in adjudication.
"How taking a matter to court as reconcieved [of] as promotion of homosexuality, is a little bit beyond my understanding," Dolan said. "It's due legal process and the right of any organization."
This is not the first time that Lokodo has threatened RLP and other organizations over opposition of the anti-LGBT law, Dolan said. He threatened to close RLP in 2012 along with 22 other organizations, most of which were part of the coalition opposing the law, which is formally known as the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law. He never followed through with the threat.
"It's almost as if he sees the [Anti-Homosexuality] Act as providing him as special powers," Dolan said.
But it is consistent with the broad attack on civil society that the Ugandan government has been carrying out for years, said Maria Burnett of Human Rights Watch.
"The current usage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act to harass organizations shows that the government is increasingly intolerant of divergent views," Burnett said, and it follows a "ramp up harassment of civil society working on a range of sensitive topics, from land rights and corruption to human rights."
"It is very troubling that Uganda — and specifically the office of the minister of ethics and integrity — is failing to respect the role of civil society and is attacking this essential element of a human rights-respecting democracy," she added.
The NTV report sparked incorrect reports that RLP and the Civil Society Coalition had been "shut down," but Dolan said the group was operating, but had suspended direct work with clients.