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A man in Uganda becomes first known person charged with 'aggravated homosexuality'

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In Uganda, a 20-year-old man has become the first person to be charged for so-called aggravated homosexuality. That's an offense that carries the death penalty under some of the most punitive anti-gay legislation in the world.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Same-sex relations have been illegal in the East African country for a long time. And then this year, the parliament passed legislation that included the death penalty for so-called aggravated homosexuality, as A said. That is defined as same-sex relations with someone who is HIV positive or a child, an elderly person or a disabled person.

MARTÍNEZ: Our Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us now from Lagos. Before we talk about this particular case, how is this legislation - how did it come about in the first place and what does it include?

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Well, in May, President Yoweri Museveni - he passed an extreme new bill which included up to 20 years in prison for so-called promotion of LGBTQ+ people, so really coming down on advocates and even journalists in Uganda who are having to be careful about how they cover this because they fear being seen to promote it. And it's important to stress that an important driver of this bill is not just - it's not really mainstream society in Uganda but activism by local conservative groups like the church, and they are backed by external actors, including U.S. evangelical and right-wing groups.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. The man we talked about earlier, what do we know about his case?

AKINWOTU: Well, we know he is a 20-year-old man who's been arrested. We managed to get in touch with his lawyer, Justine Balya, and she said he's the first person to be charged for aggravated homosexuality. She told us he's being charged for having, quote, "sexual contact with someone with a disability of the same sex." We don't know what the disability is or really much else about the case until more details emerge in court. You know, Uganda hasn't executed someone for decades, but if he's convicted, it's going to put that recent precedent to the test. And this is what she had to say.

JUSTINE BALYA: For me, the real problem isn't so much that the penalty is scary, that it's death. It's just what the death penalty means for procedure. He's going to have to remain in prison custody regardless of his innocence, just because of that charge on the file.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. The World Bank, Emmanuel, says they're going to stop offering loans to Uganda, and the U.S. has imposed travel bans on some officials. But what's likely to be the impact of some of these actions?

AKINWOTU: Well, Museveni has said it's hypocritical as other countries receive aid that have similar laws. You know, the challenge with international pressure to bills like this is a few things. You know, it creates a backlash because African countries - like in this case, Uganda - they react to being pressured by Western countries and Western institutions. And also, another factor is it's - inadvertently reinforces this common conspiracy theory that gay and queer identity is foreign and imported and doesn't have a precedent in African culture, which isn't true. You know, in Uganda today, this case isn't on the front pages. It's not a major talking point around the country. But, of course, to gay and queer people, to advocates, to people who care about their wellbeing, this is a major moment and an incredibly disturbing one. And it's one where the Ugandan government are essentially showing that - and Ugandan authorities are showing that this law is not just talk, and it's one that's going to have a material effect on sexual minorities in Uganda.

MARTÍNEZ: That's our NPR Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu. Thanks a lot.

AKINWOTU: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.