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Under cover of Covid, Uganda targets LGBTQ+ shelter

bit2Big > Africa News > Under cover of Covid, Uganda targets LGBTQ+ shelter

Edward was lying on his bed when he heard shouting and banging. Last night had been fun: he’d hosted some friends at the LGBTQ+ homeless shelter where he lives and they had stayed up late, talking and drinking. As he pulled on his clothes, some men rushed into his room. They dragged him up by the arms, shouting at him to get out. “I was like: it’s a bad dream,” he said. “I was so scared.”

The men slapped him as they led him through the house. He was taken to the courtyard outside, where town councillors and army officials were beating and shouting at his housemates, asking them why they were gay and what they were doing at the shelter. (Same-sex sexual acts are illegal in Uganda and carry a potential penalty of life imprisonment.) 

“They were asking us all these questions, threatening to burn us and to kill us,” said Tevin, 20, another resident at the shelter. “They said, ‘You guys are so evil, you deserve to be killed.’”

Tevin and others were taken into the toilets and told to undress. They were subjected to internal examinations – apparently looking for “evidence” of anal sex. Tevin feared he would die. “I thought: no one will come to my rescue because I am gay,” he said.

It was the beginning of a two-month ordeal in which they were arrested, imprisoned and denied access to their lawyers for six weeks – all under the guise of public health protections brought in because of the coronavirus pandemic.


Ugandan police officers and members of Local Defence Units (LDU), a paramilitary force composed of civilians, patrol during the curfew after 7pm in Kampala, Uganda, on April, 29, 2020. – Ugandan President on April 14, 2020, ordered the extension of a 21-day nationwide lockdown with a strict night curfew, in a bid to halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. (Photo by SUMY SADURNI / AFP)

During the raid, the residents saw the local mayor, Hajji Abdu Kiyimba, come in. They say he whipped them with a cane and opened the gate to the shelter, telling villagers to come and “see these gays”. The residents believe he tipped off journalists who arrived to film and take photos, publicly outing them. When a police officer who was part of the raid called for a patrol car to take the residents away, Tevin heard the mayor say: “No, these guys deserve to be taken like pigs or goats or cows. They do not deserve the respect of going in our police cars.”

The residents had their hands tied up with rope, so tightly they swelled up, and were marched barefoot through the streets while villagers hit them, threw stones and shouted abuse. 

Kyengera town council and the Ugandan army did not respond to the Bureau’s requests for comment. The mayor did not respond but vehemently denied all allegations against him in an affidavit signed in August. 

The police released two sick residents and a nurse who worked at the home; the rest were detained. They were put in a cramped jail cell with a bucket for a toilet and were not fed despite having gone a day without food. They stayed up all night crying and praying.

The LGBTQ+ community has long faced discrimination in Uganda, where there have been repeated attempts to introduce the death penalty for same-sex relations. Mob assaults are a regular occurrence and last year 127 people were arrested in a raid on a gay-friendly bar. The situation has been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of LGBTQ+ people arrested in Uganda has at least doubled since March, human rights organisations report. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has learned of more than 100 cases across the country in which police or military have been accused of using new powers brought in during the pandemic to arrest, extort or imprison LGBTQ+ people, as happened to the shelter residents. Many of the people imprisoned have been denied access to healthcare.

While restrictions are easing in various countries, many of the laws brought in to deal with Covid-19 have no sunset clause – a date it ceases to have effect – said Louise Edwards of the non-profit African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum. With little scrutiny on the police, victims of human rights violations may be denied justice. “It’s deeply concerning,” she said. 

For the shelter’s residents, 25 November is a hugely important day. It is when the second hearing for the mayor and a prison officer accused of harassing them is scheduled.

Two months of abuse 

The Children of the Sun Foundation shelter is in Kyengera, on the outskirts of Kampala. At the time, it housed 21 transgender women and gay and bisexual men, most of whom had been rejected by their families because of their sexuality or gender identity. 

Lawyers from the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF), a legal aid organisation for marginalised groups, had been called when the shelter was raided. Tevin presumed the lawyers would get them released from custody. 

But after three days, a police spokesperson took the residents outside and told journalists to come and take pictures. They were told that they were being charged with defying a presidential directive relating to Covid-19 that banned groups of five from gathering outside. “These directives, however, did not limit the number of people who stayed in a house provided they stayed at home,” said Adrian Jjuuko, a lawyer at HRAPF who is representing the residents. “The charges were unfounded.”

The residents were trucked to the courthouse, which had been closed for lockdown but was opened especially for their hearing, said Jjuuko. The building itself stayed shut, so the charges were read to the group as they sat in the truck at the side of the road. 

The men and trans women were then sent to Kitalya Mini-Max Prison, around 45km away, where they say they were subjected to nearly two months of abuse and beatings. They say they were denied access to healthcare and legal representation. (The assistant prison officer in charge denies these allegations.) When Jjuuko and his team arrived at the prison they were told they could not see their clients, with officials claiming it was a Covid-19 risk. 

The case was so extreme – even by Uganda’s standards – that it received international attention. The UN and human rights organisations called for the residents’ release.

While around 2 000 people were set to be released from Ugandan prisons because of the risk of Covid-19, the shelter residents were put into a 50×50-metre room that housed 370 people. They slept on the floor, cheek by jowl with other prisoners, and were given inedible meals. “The food was like food that is fed to pigs,” Tevin said of the undercooked beans and maize.

On the prisoners’ second day, new arrivals recognised the group from news reports and told everyone in the prison they were gay. They were beaten by religious inmates calling themselves the “second sons of god”. Another day, a warden ordered a prisoner to put on a glove and use soap to anally examine one of the shelter’s residents, saying that the results confirmed the resident was gay. It was done in full view of other residents, who had to watch, helpless.

Group members report seeing prisoners die from violence, starvation and sickness. One thought about taking his own life. 

Finally, after 42 days, Jjuuko was given access to his clients. “We found them in bad shape,” he said. 

Later that day, some of the group were brutally beaten. Members allege that Philimon Woniala, the assistant officer in charge of the prison, accused one of them of having sex with another man and sought to get the residents to confess to being gay. They say he made all 20 residents lie on the floor and whipped them one by one with canes and metallic wire until they bled, calling on other prisoners to join in. Woniala denies all allegations against him.

“[The other prisoners] were watching and they would be like: ‘Kill them. Stop beating them, just kill them’,” said Kelvin, a 22-year-old shelter resident. 

Woniala allegedly ordered a prisoner to get a piece of wood from the fire. He is said to have ordered a prisoner to burn one of the trans women between the legs until she was crying and bleeding. It is claimed he told a prisoner to burn other residents on their buttocks and arms. 

Tevin watched the others get burned, knowing he was likely next. “I did not know that the feeling of watching someone being tortured could be worse than actually being tortured yourself,” he said. Before it got round to him, the wood burned out. 

Neither Woniala, Kitalya Mini-Max Prison nor the Uganda Prisons Service responded to the Bureau’s request for comment. In affidavits signed in August, Woniala denied all allegations against him. “I know that the applicants were not subjected to any torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment while in prison at Kitalya government prison,” it read, adding that the group had “enjoyed a peaceful stay” and were “treated with dignity”.

In court, the group’s lawyers succeeded in getting the charges withdrawn by the prosecutors – but the residents had no means of knowing. The authorities would not take them to the hearing, said Jjuuko, and the prison’s video conferencing facility did not provide a video link with the court. 

That night, the residents were told they would soon be released. “I felt like I was back to life,” said a 20-year-old prisoner, Ssenyonga. “Because in there, we were not actually alive.”

Before they left, Woniala came to petition them. Residents allege he asked them not to tell their lawyers about the beatings he had given them. Finally the lawyers arrived. Driving home, the residents thought of their mothers, their boyfriends, their children. They were taken to a hotel where they were given chicken, rice and a mashed plantain called matoke. It tasted better than it ever had before, said Kelvin.

‘The police are using Covid as an excuse’

Alexander Human has dealt with a spike in arrests of members since Uganda’s first Covid-19 case in March. He runs Blessed Rwenzori Uganda, an organisation that provides legal aid and healthcare to trans and queer people in western Uganda. He knows of 30 people who have been arrested for breaking curfew, with some being asked by police to pay bribes. If they refuse, he said, police threaten them with a lawsuit. 

Rihana Mukasa, executive director of Initiative for Rescue Uganda, which helps LGBTQ+ people in prisons, has been arrested three times since February for breaking curfew, failing to wear a mask or impersonation. She believes the arrests were motivated by the fact she is trans. On one occasion, she said, the police forcefully made her undress in order to “check” whether she was male or female. 

Mukasa, who is HIV-positive, said she was denied access to HIV drugs while in jail and her viral load (a measure of virus in the blood) rose. Some of the shelter residents were said to be denied HIV medication as the prison did not have their drugs in stock. 

In Uganda, the stigma of HIV is so great that people often keep their status a secret. 

Mukasa’s friend Kintu Aron, also a trans woman, was arrested in September for breaking curfew and failing to wear a mask. She says she was held in jail for one month without her TB medication, coughing so much the other inmates believed she had coronavirus. 

Jackson*, a trans man who works in a homeware shop, was forced to undress and was sexually assaulted on four occasions during raids to arrest men out after curfew. “I feel so bad – so frustrated and angry,” he said. “To report it, I would have to go to the police. But they are the people doing these things.”

Mbarara Rise Foundation, an LGBTQ+ organisation in western Uganda, is responding to twice as many arrests as before the pandemic. Its director, Raymond Twinamatsiko, believes his members are being targeted. “The police have used the Covid crisis to arrest the LGBTQ+ community, to brutally arrest them,” he said. He claims some police have sought to extort money from community members. More than half of those arrested have been beaten by the police before being put in cells, according to Twinamatsiko. 

Many police tell the other inmates that the person is LGBTQ+, he said, so the abuse continues. He said some officers at the station do not even open up police files – proof, he feels, that the purpose of these arrests is to extort money rather than prosecute a crime. A number of people say they have paid between 50 000 and 100 000 Ugandan shillings (R200-R400) to be released. The average daily wage is about 90 000 shillings.

“When you go in as a paralegal, you ask, ‘What’s the file number, what happened?’” said Twinamatsiko. “They don’t have that data, because they are arresting you using Covid as an excuse.” He believes that in a number of cases, “when someone comes to rescue, they will just extort money and release you”. 

The Uganda National Police does not publish data on arrests, only the number of cases submitted to the public prosecutor and the number of convictions. 

“The fact that this type of information is not publicly available, or easily accessible, is incredibly problematic from an oversight and accountability perspective,” said Louise Edwards of the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum.

If arrests far outnumber convictions, it suggests that arrests are being used punitively. Policies such as arrest quotas drive up discriminatory arrests of minority groups, said Edwards. In Uganda there are few checks and balances on the police, internal or external, she adds. There have been calls for years for an independent police oversight body but nothing has come of it. 

People can complain to the Uganda Human Rights Commission, which can make decisions against the police. Or they can take a civil case to the courts, which is expensive and often takes years. Most people cannot afford that option.

Anneke Meerkotter, a litigation director at the Southern African Litigation Centre, said that Africa’s colonial history, combined with the fact many countries have gone through “state of emergency” periods with military rule and impunity for law enforcement, means the police and armed forces believe they can do whatever they want in such a situation, even if the emergency in question is a pandemic. “That’s why we have seen such a massive increase in the abuse by law-enforcement agents throughout Africa during this period. Arresting LGBTQ+ people is just one manifestation of it.”

Uncertain future

Along with HRAPF, the shelter residents have launched criminal and civil cases against the Ugandan attorney general, the mayor, the prison officer Philimon Woniala and Kyengera town council. They won the first case, which was about being denied access to lawyers in jail, and were each awarded five million Ugandan shillings (just over R20 000). But they do not know when or even if they will receive the money.

In affidavits for the civil case, mayor Kiyimba asked for it to be dismissed and Woniala said the case is “motivated by ill will, malice and an unmitigated lust for unjust enrichment”.

Kiyimba, who is now running to become a member of parliament, and Woniala did not show up to court in October. HRAPF has asked for warrants to be put out for their arrests. The next hearing for the criminal court case is 25 November. The civil case will be heard on 9 December.

With the original shelter no longer safe, the residents spent seven months in hotels, temporary shelters and private accommodation funded by donors. The Children of the Sun Foundation has now received funding to open a new shelter.

HRAPF is now working to educate Ugandan magistrates about how LGBTQ+ people are treated in jail. It has also trained more than 500 senior police officers on queer people’s rights during arrest and detention. Edward, from the shelter, hopes police officers can be trained not to beat and insult gay people, and to stop using force during arrests. “Any time I am walking on the roadside I can be beaten,” he said. “I will feel so good when the day comes that I can walk down the road with my boyfriend.”

*Some names have been changed to protect the safety of those quoted

This is an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

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