A Ugandan court on Wednesday granted lawyers access to 19 LGBT+ people, detained for more than six weeks with no legal help, after they were charged with risking the spread of the coronavirus.
The 13 gay men, two bisexual men and four transgender women, were arrested on March 29, when police raided an LGBT+ shelter on the outskirts of the capital Kampala, following a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people to control the virus.
Human rights groups have said authorities are using the restrictions to target sexual minorities in the east African nation, where gay sex carries a life sentence, and homophobia and the persecution of LGBT+ people is widespread.
Lawyers representing the LGBT+ group had petitioned Uganda’s High Court, arguing that a ban on prison visits due to the pandemic had made it impossible to meet their clients, to prepare for their trial expected on May 18.
Lawyers from Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) said they would go to the jail after Judge Michael Elubu ruled on Wednesday that the defendants should have access to legal counsel, to prepare for the trial and bail applications.
“It’s been a long battle, so we’re excited by today’s ruling because I think the High Court recognises that even during COVID-19 the right to a fair hearing is non-negotiable,” said Adrian Jjuuko, HRAPF’s executive director.
The March arrests are the latest in a series of incidents targeting sexual minorities in Uganda.
In October last year, a minister proposed introducing the death penalty for gay sex. The government denied it had any plans to do so after condemnation from international donors.
Attacks on LGBT+ people rose after the minister’s comments, including the arrest of activists from their office and residence, and a raid on Ram Bar, a gay-friendly bar, which led to the arrest of 67 people.
Human rights groups have called on Uganda’s director of public prosecutions to drop the charges against the 19 LGBT+ people arrested in the shelter raid.
“Prosecuting authorities should drop charges and release 19 Ugandan youth who have committed no crime,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch in a statement.
“It is not a crime to be homeless and live in a shelter, and the ongoing detention of the shelter residents is arbitrary, abusive, and contrary to public health.”
-Alice McCool – Thomson Reuters Foundation