28 July 2007

Kenya: Lesbian Couple Takes the Bull By the Horns After Attack

Nairobi — Yvonne Ooyo, a Kenyan living in Uganda, and her female partner Victor Mukasa are distressed. The two women were living happily together in a Ugandan town when their peace was shattered by a police raid two years ago. Since then, they say their lives have changed adversely.

Ms Ooyo, 24, a self-confessed lesbian and Ms Mukasa, a gay rights activist, have sued Ugandan authorities in a landmark case following the raid.

They have taken the government to court for trespassing, theft of property, illegal arrest and inhuman and degrading treatment.

The case has been in court since December 2006 and a verdict is expected when hearing resumes next month.

"We want people to see that what we suffer is similar to other oppressed groups," says Ms Mukasa, who is the chairperson of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMU), a coalition of three gay rights advocacy organisations.

Their case would be straight forward were it not for the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Uganda. In fact, this is the first case targeting legal rights of homosexuals to be heard publicly in Uganda and much of Africa. Except for South Africa, most of the continent frowns upon homosexuality, both legally and socially.

The two say that on July 20, 2005, a government official broke into their home, seized property and detained Ms Ooyo without a warrant.

Mr John Lubega, the Local Council 1 chairman of Kireka Kamuli zone allegedly raided the home which belongs to Ms Mukasa without a warrant. Ms Mukasa was reportedly away on the material night and had left Ms Ooyo, a student at Makerere University, in the house.

During the raid, police confiscated materials they described as advocating gay rights and arrested Ms Ooyo for "idle and disorderly" conduct. She was locked up for several hours and she alleges the officers sexually harassed her.

Local councils in Uganda are mandated to collect intelligence but are not part of the police force.

Gay rights

"They kept teasing me about whether I am a girl or a boy," she recounts, adding the police did not believe her when she told them she was a female.

They instead asked her to undress in front of an officer for a 'thorough check' during which the woman allegedly felt her private parts and pressed her breasts, ostensibly to confirm her gender.

"I know she did this because she felt that since I'm a homosexual, I did not deserve any dignified treatment," claims Ms Ooyo.

In the late 1990s, President Yoweri Museveni instructed police to arrest gay people on sight.

"I have told the CID (Criminal Investigations Department) to look for homosexuals, lock them up and charge them," he said while opening a reproductive health conference in Kampala.

The statement provoked diplomatic protests from, among others, the American state department.

After the raid, both complainants claim they lived in fear of more attacks. Amnesty International had to step in and help Ms Mukasa to flee to South Africa. She only returned to Uganda for the first of three court sessions on the case. The final hearing next month will determine whether she enjoys the same rights as her country men despite her sexual preferences.

Diplomatic protests

"We are not asking for the right to marry, we are asking for the same rights that are guaranteed to all Ugandan citizens, even prisoners. My homosexuality does not deprive me of my citizenship of Uganda. I am only exercising my constitutional rights," Ms Mukasa says.

Dr Nsaba Buturo, the Ugandan minister for Ethics and Integrity, confirmed that the couple's move to seek affirmation of their constitutional rights by a court of law is no easy feat.

He said that the plaintiffs "suffered under the false notion that homosexuality can be a human rights issue" and cautioned that "next time, they will say bestiality should be a human right."

Due process

Yet, Uganda is a signatory to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which demands the universal protection of civil and political rights for oppressed groups regardless of political affiliation, race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

However, activists say this has had no apparent effect on the way homosexuals are regarded.

But Dr Sylvia Tamale, Dean of the Makerere University Law School, sees things differently.

"This is not really a case challenging the legality of homosexuality. It is actually about rights to privacy and property," she says.

The case has been filed as a violation of articles contained in Chapter 4 of the Uganda Constitution which covers the protection of fundamental rights including the right to privacy, property, protection from inhuman and degrading treatment and due process under the law.

But these rights, by themselves, are a grey area in Ugandan law. Oscar Kihika, the President of the Uganda Law Society, says there is a conflict between the country's highly progressive constitutional law and residual laws from the British colonial rule and Idi Amin's rein.

"Technically, police are allowed to search your home and detain you for questioning without a warrant at any time if they so much as suspect you are breaking the law," says Mr Kihika, adding: "This was not the case in the 1970s but Idi Amin amended many laws to give police broader powers."

Right information

Since homosexuality is illegal, suspicion alone gives sufficient justification for a police search and 'call for questioning.'

However, Mr Kihika points out that removing items from a residence without a warrant is prohibited. In Ms Oyoo and Ms Mukasa's case, that the raid was carried out by an LC1 Chairman, not the police, gives their complaint even more weight.

Gay rights activists like Sexual Minorities Uganda [SMU] claim the atmosphere in Uganda is constantly hostile to them.

Some religious leaders like born-again Pastor Martin Sempa of the Makerere Community Church advocate a path of 'redemption' rather than court trials.

"I know many people in my congregation who were lesbian but have turned around and are living a straight life now," he says,

"Victor will experience redemption if she is given the right treatment and information" he adds.

Recently after a split in the Anglican church of America over gay rights, Ugandan churches stepped up to provide pastoral assistance to several dioceses which were against homosexuality.

In October 2006, a local newspaper published a list of names of suspected gays and lesbians. The gay rights group says several people whose names appeared on the list lost jobs and were mistreated by their families.

Conservative masses

According to SMU, gays and lesbians in Uganda are constantly harassed by police, taxi drivers and the public. Some claim that they have been humiliated at school assemblies, forced to undress in church to "remove male spirits" or raped to "prove" that they are women.

The group says most of these acts go unreported because gay people fear they will end up in jail.

"This is not just a case of one lesbian woman seeking justice. It is a case of every gay person in this country whose rights have been violated in one way or another," says Ms Mukasa.

Ruling on the case by Uganda's Constitutional court next month could set a precedent for sub-Saharan Africa's conservative masses.

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