A UGANDAN court has annulled an anti-gay act signed into law earlier this year, saying it was improperly passed and was therefore unconstitutional.
Five judges from Uganda’s Constitutional Court said the speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, had acted illegally when she allowed a vote on the measure, despite at least three objections over a lack of a quorum when the bill was enacted on 20 December last year.
One of the objectors was the East African nation’s prime minister, Patrick Amama Mbabazi.
“The speaker was obliged to ensure there was a quorum,” the court ruled. “We come to the conclusion she acted illegally.”
Campaigners cheered in court when the judges declared the law “null and void”.
The anti-gay legislation provided for jail terms of up to life for those convicted of engaging in gay sex. It also allowed lengthy jail terms for those convicted of the offences of “attempted homosexuality” and “promotion of homosexuality”.
Homosexuality is illegal in 37 of Africa’s 47 countries, but the Ugandan law had set out the harshest punishments on the continent.
Uganda is a deeply conservative society where many people oppose gay rights and the sentence for homosexual acts has always been life in jail.
Earlier drafts of the anti-gay law made it a crime not to report homosexuals – which would have made it impossible to live as openly gay – but this clause was removed.
The law was signed by president Yoweri Museveni in February and toughened up existing legislation. Lesbians were covered for the first time and those found living in a same-sex marriage could have been jailed for life.
Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan gay activist, said the ruling was a “step forward” though he was concerned about a possible backlash.
Ugandan lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, for the activists, said the ruling “upholds the rule of law and constitutionalism in Uganda”.
Lawyers and activists had challenged the law as having been illegally passed and unconstitutional, a position upheld by the court.
Nicholas Opiyo, a Ugandan lawyer among the petitioners, welcomed the ruling but said there was still a missed opportunity to debate the substance of the law.
“The ideal situation would have been to deal with the other issues of the law, to sort out this thing once and for all,” he said. But he added: “Justice prevailed, we won.”
A British colonial-era law that criminalises sex acts “against the order of nature”, remains in effect in Uganda, allowing for the continued arrest of alleged homosexual offenders.
Mr Opiyo warned that members of Uganda’s parliament would probably try to reintroduce a new anti-gay bill.
Kosiya Kasibayo, a state attorney, said a decision had not been made on whether to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court, Uganda’s highest court.
When he signed the law on 24 February, Mr Museveni said he wanted to deter western agencies from promoting homosexuality among African children.
Although the legislation has wide support in Uganda, it has been condemned in the West, and rights groups have described it as draconian. The United States, which wants the law repealed, has withheld or redirected funding from some Ugandan institutions accused of involvement in rights abuses.
The ruling may also win the Ugandan delegation a softer landing in the US next week as it heads to Washington for a gathering led by president Barack Obama.
Several donors cut aid to Uganda following its adoption of the controversial legislation.
What the law proposed:
THE Anti-Homosexuality Act introduced a range of new offences and penalties in Uganda. These included:
• Life imprisonment for gay sex, including oral sex.
• Life imprisonment for living in a same-sex marriage.
• Between five and seven years in jail or a £24,500 fine or both for promoting homosexuality.
• Life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality”, including sex with a minor or while HIV-positive.
• Seven years for “attempting to commit homosexuality”.
• Businesses or non-government organisations guilty of promoting homosexuality would have their registration cancelled and directors could face seven years in jail.