Uganda judges debate bid to overturn anti-gay law

Ugandan human rights and gay rights activists stand at the constitutional court in Kampala on July 30, 2014. Ugandan activists opened a petition at the constitutional court seeking to overturn tough anti-gay laws that have been condemned by rights groups as Draconian.

Ugandan state lawyers sought on Thursday to dismiss a petition by activists at the constitutional court seeking to overturn anti-gay legislation condemned by rights groups as draconian.

Signed by Uganda's veteran President Yoweri Museveni in February, the law calls for homosexuals to be jailed for life, outlaws the promotion of homosexuality and obliges Ugandans to denounce gays to the authorities.

But the activists argue that the law was passed in parliament without the necessary quorum of lawmakers, and say they are confident in their case.

"We are saying there is no evidence about the quorum," state attorney Patricia Mutesa told the court in the capital Kampala, the second day of the hearing.

The 10 petitioners -- including two Ugandan rights organisations -- also claim that the law violates the constitutional right to privacy and dignity, as well as the right to be free from discrimination, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Judges adjourned the hearings until Friday, when they are expected to rule on the quorum issue.

Prominent gay rights activist Frank Mugisha, one of the petitioners, told AFP he was optimistic that judges would rule in favour of scrapping the law.

"I think that we could have a very good judgement tomorrow, and if we get that judgement then it's over -- and we just have to celebrate," said Mugisha, who heads the Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) group.

- 'Judicial abortion' -

Outspoken anti-gay preacher Pastor Martin Ssempa, who was also in court, has already warned he feared the "judicial abortion of our bill" due to international pressure.

"This case is moving at lightning speed," he said Thursday, claiming the petition was being pushed to polish Uganda's international reputation before Museveni travels to Washington next week to meet President Barack Obama at a landmark US-Africa summit.

"There are efforts... to drum up a legal precedent to try to show (Washington) that, 'hey, we are not that bad on homosexuality,'" Ssempa claimed.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has likened the Ugandan law to anti-Semitic legislation in Nazi Germany.

Critics have said Museveni signed the law to win domestic support ahead of a presidential election scheduled for 2016, which will be his 30th year in power.

But Western nations made a raft of aid cuts to Uganda's government in protest since the law was passed.

Washington last month froze some aid programmes, as well as cancelling military air exercises and barring entry to the US for specific Ugandan officials involved in "human rights abuses", including against the gay community.

Rights groups say the law has triggered a sharp increase in arrests and assaults of members of the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Should the act be overturned, the law would return to previous legislation, when homosexuality was still illegal.

Mugisha claimed that judges were focusing on the technical issue of the quorum to avoid tackling the petitioners’ challenge on the grounds of human rights.

 "I think the court and the attorney general are trying to avoid all that," he said, arguing that to press ahead with arguments on rights would see activists raise challenges to older laws on sodomy.

Homophobia is widespread in Uganda, where American-style evangelical Christianity is on the rise.

Gay men and women face frequent harassment and threats of violence.

© 2014 AFP