Uganda is using social distancing rules as a reason to detain 19 people for a month without access to lawyers, following a raid on an LGBTQ shelter.
The group was arrested on March 29 on the outskirts of Kampala, after local officials raided a shelter operated by an NGO called the Children of the Sun Foundation. They were due in court on Tuesday, said their attorney, Patricia Kimera of the NGO called the Human Rights Awareness and Protection Forum (HRAPF). But officials did not bring them to court, nor did the government’s attorneys show up to the hearing. Uganda’s coronavirus restrictions have made it nearly impossible for people to travel on public roads, and courts and attorneys are not considered essential services under the order.
“We can’t access our clients. We don’t know how they are in prison,” Kimera said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News. She received such little notice of their first appearance before a court the day after their arrest that the courthouse was shuttered by the time she arrived. “We’ve tried all we can.”
They’ve been charged with violating social distancing orders and were formally accused of committing a “negligent act likely to spread an infectious disease” because they had so many people under one roof. Thirteen of those arrested lived in the four-room shelter, but a few more people were staying temporarily because they’d been visiting the shelter when the government restricted public transportation and they had no way to get home. The shelter had tried to address coronavirus concerns by making a rule that anyone who went out would not be able to return.
It’s not uncommon for many people to live under one roof in Uganda, but there have not been widespread arrests of people in crowded houses. Kimera said she believes local government officials are just using the coronavirus restrictions to punish LGBTQ people they could not otherwise prosecute. Official harassment of LGBTQ people is a longstanding problem in Uganda, but they are almost never prosecuted for charges directly related to their sexual orientation. A sweeping “Anti-Homosexuality Act” that caused an international uproar when it was adopted in 2014 was quickly struck down by the courts on a technicality. There is a much older sodomy law on the books, but it requires so much evidence of a specific act of intercourse that it has never been successfully prosecuted in court.
The Children of the Sun Foundation shelter was actually raided two days before Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni issued a sweeping lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus that limited gatherings to no more than 10 people. But the country, which now has officially confirmed 79 coronavirus cases, began phasing in some restrictions in early March as the country shifted to a crisis mode. This gave an opening to community leaders in the town of Wakiso to call in the police to shut down a facility that has operated in the area for nine months with permission of local police.
“This gave them an opportunity to get rid of us,” said Charles, the Children of the Sun Foundation’s program director, who asked that his last name not be published out of concern for his safety.
Charles arrived at the shelter shortly after a local militia burst into the compound and rounded up the residents, and he was also immediately detained. The local mayor, Hajj Abdul Kiyimba, soon arrived on the scene and called in a local news station, which filmed him interrogating the residents and beating them with a large stick. Kiyimba demanded residents give him their parents’ phone numbers, Charles said, which the mayor then used to out the residents to their families. (Kiyimba did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent via Facebook.)
Charles said he and the others were forced to make a “walk of shame” down to the police station while bound together by rope. He managed to win release by convincing the authorities that he did not actually work for the foundation. A nurse working at the site was also released a short time after the arrests, along with two residents who were released for health reasons and one more who appeared to be a minor. But the group’s executive director and 18 others are still behind bars.
The coronavirus restrictions, which were put in place with little planning or notice, have caused a host of problems. Around 1 million people in Uganda rely on antiretroviral therapy for HIV, but no provisions were made to allow them to travel to clinics or get a sufficient supply of drugs in some other way, said Asia Russell, the Kampala-based executive director of Health Gap, an American NGO that advocates for global access to HIV treatment. There have also been several reports of women dying in childbirth because they could not reach a hospital.
This raid on Children of the Sun Foundation is just one example of how Uganda’s sweeping coronavirus lockdown is being used for political purposes said Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer who helped get the Anti-Homosexuality Act struck down in 2014. The pandemic arrived in Uganda when the country was already moving into campaign mode ahead of elections next year. Opposition politicians have been arrested for handing out food in their districts, Opiyo said, while members of the ruling party have made a show of distributing aid in their areas.
The lockdown, Opiyo said, “was intended to create this atmosphere of fear and have a ... plausible excuse for arresting and locking people up.”
A spokesperson for Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni did not immediately respond to a request for comment.