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 Kampala. Police said they were violating social distancing rules banning gatherings of more than 10 people.
Human rights groups said authorities were 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 are widespread.
The ruling by the magistrate’s court said the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had withdrawn the charge of “doing a neglect act likely to spread infection of disease” against the group, and ordered that they be released from prison.
“It is the right decision for the DPP to withdraw the charges since it was a targeted arrest with trumped up charges,” said Patricia Kimera, a lawyer from the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) who is representing the group.
Kimera said HRAPF had asked the DPP to dismiss the case, as the charges were unfounded. The ban on gatherings pertained to public places and not shelters, she said.
Officials from the DPP’s office were not immediately available for comment on why the charges were dropped.
Lawyers will serve the release order to the prison today, said Kimera, adding that she was concerned about the health of some members of group after visiting them in prison on Friday.
She said they looked weak, and some reported symptoms of malaria and typhoid. Some are HIV-positive, and did not have their medication, she added.
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 a gay-friendly bar that led to the arrest of 67 people.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UNAIDS said there had been reports of murders, arrests and violence against LGBT+ people in countries including Puerto Rico, Egypt, Uganda, Cameroon and South Korea.
“Arbitrary and discriminatory arrests and harassment of LGBTI people must stop,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima in a statement marking International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on Sunday.
“The COVID-19 crisis has exposed and exacerbated the inequality, violence, and abuse that LGBTI people face every day. We need to break the silence against these draconian laws, which only serve to further marginalize people.”
-Alice McCool – Thomson Reuters Foundation