OPINION: Free the 19 Remanded LGBTQ+ Persons Under Pretext of COVID-19 Regulations

By: Sylvester Kazibwe

Global outbreak of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has become a test to societies, governments and individuals alike on their value for human rights. Uganda is not spared.

The Public Health Act under the ‘prevention and suppression of infectious diseases’ section, the government has the leeway to either put in place measures to contain the spread of a pandemic or declare a state of emergency to secure public health.

In a bid to arrest the spread of the virus, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, mid last month closed schools, air, land and water borders and announced a ban on all form of social gatherings including churches and entertainment venues. The measure has since been tagged #stayhomestaysafe.

The aforementioned provisions might infringe on certain individual rights.  However, the Constitution prohibits derogation from particular human rights and freedoms in the state of emergency. They include freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, freedom from slavery and servitude, the right to fair hearing and the right to habeas corpus.

Data from both domestic and international poverty indices rank Uganda among developing countries with a significant chunk of its population living below the poverty line. By effect, many vulnerable and marginalised groups live in shelters for the homeless people to survive another day. This should not be illegal!

The lockdown measures were not explicit on the number of residents that can stay in a private home (shelter) but the police went ahead to arrest the people found indoors at the Kyengera-based shelter run by Children of the Sun Foundation, an NGO.

Unfortunately, 23  people living at a shelter serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Kyengera, a Kampala suburb, were arrested by Uganda Police force Officers and Local leaders in the disguise of effecting President Museveni’s directives of lockdown.

Although Uganda’s law books prohibit mob justice, local leaders were seen on videos that were broadcast on mainstream media and later circulated on social media inciting the public to call them homosexuals and beating the youth found in the shelters. However, none of the perpetrators has been brought to book.

One then wonders, are local authorities and police misinterpreting the regulations and employing their own biases and unlawful interpretation of the law to effect COVID-19 directives in a way that it negatively bears on the youth because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Nineteen of the victims were remanded to prison. The detained where denied access to their lawyers because the legal profession is not categorised as an essential service to move during this lockdown. Although the Constitution which is the supreme law in Uganda offers that detained persons shall be permitted to consult a lawyer this rule did not apply for the accused.

During the arrest a number of rights were infringed on to include, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and right to fair hearing. These young men were paraded at public eye that verbally insulted them calling them homosexuals overstepping on their right to dignity.

In the face of the Covid-19 scare, it is not only the rights of the marginalised group such the LGBT community that have been subjugated but the general population alike.

These directives are being misinterpreted to massively raid our community members and friends’ homes for non-existent offences. Human rights of all persons without discrimination is a constitutional provision and should not be dismissed when it comes to gender and sexual minorities.

The Magistrates Court of Nsangi needs to provide orders for the release of the accused persons for the crime they are alleged to have committed is baseless. The accused followed the directives, the way they should have, they stayed at home therefore such illegal detentions are mere tools for advancement of the homophobic agenda rather than enforcing the President’s directives.

The Uganda Human Right Commission should use its constitutional powers to review this case to ensure that these young people’s right to fair trial and hearing is not dismissed because of COVID-19 directives and that they acquire justice.

The Uganda Human Rights Commission should see to it that mayor Hajj Abdul Kiyimba and the police that arbitrary arrested these young people are held accountable for their unconstitutional actions.

Above all if we are to collectively win this fight against COVID-19, we must all remain conscious and alert to everyone’s wellbeing and not to allow such restrictions on anyone’s rights to be stretched unreasonably. The pandemic does not discriminate, and neither should the measures adopted. We must continue to demand that the nineteen people get the justice they deserve. Lastly Covid-19 directives should not present an avenue for violation of rights and more so non derogable rights provided by the Constitution.