Uganda said on Thursday it had charged 16 LGBT+ activists with the crime of gay sex – punishable by life in jail – in what campaigners called an escalating campaign against sexual minorities in the east African nation.
The 16 men, believed to be aged from 22 to 35, were taken into custody late on Monday, at the office of a sexual health charity where they all worked and lived, fellow activists said.
Police said they had found lubricants, condoms, and anti-retroviral drugs at the charity, and had conducted anal examinations on all 16 men.
“Based on the medical examination report, it was established that the suspects were involved in sexual acts punishable under the penal code,” Kampala Police spokesman, Patrick Onyango, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Fred Enanga, Uganda’s national police spokesman, said the men were charged under sections of the penal code that outlaw gay sex, and that all had been released on police bond.
“They will keep reporting to the police on selected dates pending further guidance from the state attorney’s office,” Enanga said.
The charity confirmed the men’s release on Facebook.
Gay sex carries a possible life sentence in Uganda, one of the most difficult countries in Africa to be a sexual minority, with increasingly violent confrontation over sexual freedom.
Members of the LGBT+ community say they risk physical attacks in their daily life, and routinely encounter harassment, as well as facing prejudice over work, housing, and health care.
Campaigners have reported a spate of attacks this year – including four murders – with the latest on October 4, when a gay rights activist was bludgeoned to death.
Police say they know of no such attacks.
Earlier this month, a minister proposed introducing the death penalty for gay sex, a threat retracted by the government after international donors condemned the move.
Activists said the raid was a new step-up by police.
“Normally we will hear of maybe one arrest of someone from the community under these anti-gay laws in one month, but it is really unusual to see 16 people charged like this,” said Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).
The men all worked for a charity called Let’s Walk Uganda, whose offices are on the outskirts of the capital Kampala.
They were initially taken into ‘protective custody’, after a crowd yelling homophobic slogans surrounded their office, rights groups said. Police said the group was detained after they were alerted to “illegal activities” by the community.
-Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla – Thomson Reuters Foundation