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Ugandan court overturns anti-gay law

By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN The New York Times

This article was published August 2, 2014 at 3:40 a.m.

a-photo-of-ugandas-president-hangs-on-the-wall-left-as-judge-stephen-kavuma-reads-the-verdict-at-ugandas-constitutional-court-friday-aug1-2014-a-ugandan-court-has-invalidated-an-anti-gay-bill-signed-into-law-earlier-this-year-saying-it-was-illegally-passed-and-is-therefore-unconstitutional-the-panel-of-five-judges-on-the-east-african-countrys-constitutional-court-said-the-speaker-of-parliament-acted-illegally-when-she-went-ahead-to-allow-a-vote-on-the-measure-despite-at-least-three-objections-over-lack-of-quorum-ap-photorebecca-vassie

A photo of Uganda's president hangs on the wall, left, as Judge, Stephen Kavuma reads the verdict at Uganda’s Constitutional court, Friday, Aug.1, 2014. A Ugandan court has invalidated an anti-gay bill signed into law earlier this year, saying it was illegally passed and is therefore unconstitutional. The panel of five judges on the East African country's Constitutional Court said the speaker of parliament acted illegally when she went ahead to allow a vote on the measure despite at least three objections over lack of quorum. (AP Photo/Rebecca Vassie)

NAIROBI, Kenya -- A Ugandan court on Friday struck down a punitive anti-gay law that has strained Uganda's relations with the West, but the court ruled on narrow technical grounds, preserving the possibility of the measure being revived.

In front of an overflowing courtroom in Uganda's capital, Kampala, a panel of five judges announced that the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which punishes some homosexual behavior with life in prison, was invalid because it had been passed by Parliament without a proper quorum.

"We're very happy," said Sylvia Tamale, a Ugandan law professor who has supported gay rights despite persistent threats and harassment. "But it's unfortunate that the court did not deal with the substantive issues that violate our rights."

Uganda's government, which is tightly controlled by President Yoweri Museveni, a former guerrilla fighter who has ruled for 28 years, did not immediately indicate whether it would appeal the court's ruling.

Even though the judges enjoy a reputation of being somewhat independent from Museveni, they avoided taking a stand on gay rights and chose to nullify the law in such a way that Parliament could pass it again.

Museveni has supported the anti-gay measure despite international outcry and cuts in aid from several Western governments, and he may try to resurrect the law.

He has called gays "mercenaries" and said they are more likely to get sexually transmitted diseases and stomach worms.

Some Ugandan legal scholars were hoping Museveni would use the court's ruling as convenient cover and drop what has turned into a diplomatic headache for him.

Uganda's anti-gay movement began in 2009 after U.S. preachers went to Uganda and worked closely with legislators there to draft a bill that called for putting homosexuals to death. While the bill was being debated, attacks against gay Ugandans began to increase.

In early 2011, David Kato, a slight, bespectacled man and one of the country's most outspoken gay-rights activists, was beaten to death with a hammer.

As the international criticism grew, and Western countries prepared to cut millions of dollars in aid, the Ugandan government modified the bill to make "aggravated homosexuality" punishable by life in prison, although that hardly placated Western donors.

Parliament passed the bill in December. Museveni publicly signed it into law in February.

At the time, he said "homosexuals are nurtured but not natured," and said that he could not understand how gay men could not be attracted "to all these beautiful women."

The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and the World Bank swiftly reacted, cutting or postponing some of their aid to Uganda. In June, the United States announced that it was suspending some aid, imposing visa restrictions and canceling a regional military exercise as a message to "reinforce our support for human rights of all Ugandans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

Uganda is one of the Pentagon's favorite partners in Africa, supplying peacekeeping troops to Somalia and wading through the bush side by side with U.S. Special Forces to track down the last remnants of the Lord's Resistance Army, a band of guerrilla fighters who have massacred and kidnapped tens of thousands of people in central Africa.

It is not clear what effect the court's ruling will have on U.S. aid to Uganda, which totals hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

"We will consider what steps may be necessary to respond appropriately to this new development," a State Department official said Friday.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has been outspoken on gay rights, issued a statement Friday saying the ruling was "a victory for the rule of law," and he thanked "all those who contributed to this step forward, particularly the human rights activists in Uganda who spoke out at great personal risk."

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