This article is part of a series featuring inspiring stories of local action #fromthefrontlines of COVID-19 in the Global South. For more, visit our COVID-19 page and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Ugandan security forces and local residents from the Central Region town of Kyengara, led by the mayor of Nsangi Municipality, raided a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth operated by Children of the Sun Foundations (COSF) in late March, arresting 23 people – including the executive director of COSF and a nurse from COSF’s community clinic – for violating presidential directives intended to combat the spread of COVID-19.
But according to local groups including Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a Fund-backed LGBTQ advocacy and aid organization, this was a targeted effort to persecute LGBTQ people.
LGBTQ people face widespread discrimination in Uganda. A controversial 2013 law—the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which proposed harsh sentences for homosexuality activity—was annulled by Uganda’s Constitutional Court in 2014 after international outrage and advocacy by local activists including Frank Mugisha of SMUG, but same-sex relations remain illegal and violent attacks against LGBTQ people are common.
The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), an advocacy and legal aid organization that has previously received support from the Fund, released a public statement last month praising the government for decisive action intended to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, but warned that the presidential directives put an immense burden on poor and marginalized populations and could be misused to violate the basic rights of Ugandans.
As part of a marginalized group, LGBTQ youth are particularly vulnerable to prejudice and rely on shelters for safety—especially during periods of crisis, such as a pandemic.
Of the 23 people arrested, 20 were arraigned and sent to prison to await sentencing. Two were released on police bond for medical reasons, as well as the COSF nurse.
Ugandan courts, which are currently only trying offences deemed “serious,” have not signaled whether the arrested youths will receive their rights to legal counsel or a fair and speedy trial. Until then, those arrested will stay in prison.
According to a 2019 study, Ugandan prisons are operating at over 300 percent of official capacity for accommodation. As COVID-19 continues to spread, overcrowding in jails and prisons puts incarcerated people—including those on remand, who make up nearly half of Ugandan inmates—at tremendous risk of infection.
Despite the challenges of operating during Uganda’s national lockdown, HRAPF’s legal team is leading the effort to support those arrested and secure the defendants’ release on bail. The government has banned the use of private cars and refused to grant HRAPF an exception for essential services, making it difficult to reach their clients in prison. Undaunted, HRAPF’s lawyers and advocates have procured bicycles and motorcycles to ensure their clients continue receiving critical legal aid services.
With emergency measures being exploited by authorities to target marginalized LGBTQ youth, the work of community defenders is more critical than ever. The Fund is proud to support SMUG and other organizations working to safeguard fundamental human rights and defend LGBTQ people against state persecution.
Update: After 59 days, all twenty LGBTQ youth arrested in the raid on the Children of the Sun Foundation shelter in Kyengara have been released from prison into the care of their lawyers. The director of the shelter has also been released. The youth all bear visible signs of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in detention.
The Fund is grateful to HRAPF, SMUG, and other organizations for their tenacious work to secure the release of the arrested youth. Their ongoing efforts to deliver justice and protect Uganda’s vulnerable LGBTQ community are testament to the significant ability of local civil society. We are proud to support the critical work of activists and organizations fighting for LGBTQ rights in Uganda and across the globe.