Uganda should drop the charges against 19 people arrested while seeking refuge in a shelter for homeless youth, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the director of public prosecutions. They were charged with committing “a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease,” as well as “disobedience of lawful orders.”
The 19 young people have been in prison since police arrested them on March 29, 2020, along with four others who were later released. They were arrested on the pretext that they had violated laws used to prevent the spread of Covid-19 by staying in a group home run by the nongovernmental organization Children of the Sun Foundation, in Nsangi in Wakiso district, outside Kampala. The commissioner general of prisons has prevented lawyers from the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum from visiting them or communicating by phone or video link.
“Prosecuting authorities should drop charges and release 19 Ugandan youth who have committed no crime,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
The Children of the Sun Foundation shelter serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, who are vulnerable to violence and discrimination in Uganda, where same-sex relations can carry a life sentence. Three of the youth are living with HIV, and because the lawyers have not been able to contact them, it is not known whether they have antiretroviral treatment in prison. Their immunity could be compromised and they could be at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 in prison because of crowded and unhygienic conditions there, Human Rights Watch said.
The detainees have not been granted bail. On April 28, the date of a scheduled bail hearing, the magistrate and prosecutor were not in the courtroom and the detainees were not transported from prison, even though their lawyers were present and prepared to represent them. No alternative arrangements were made with the lawyers for a bail hearing. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity have called for the release of the detainees, and UNAIDS has condemned the arrests.
“In any circumstance this arbitrary detention is an injustice, and with Covid-19 it is an imminent health risk,” Segun said. “The Director of Public Prosecutions should withdraw the charges against those arrested at the Children of the Sun Foundation shelter and release them immediately.”
This article was originally published by Human Rights Watch.