By Thom Senzee
Originally published on Advocate.com August 26 2014 3:52 PM ET
A prominent Ugandan LGBT advocacy organization has asked local authorities to investigate claims from a pair of American organizations that recently launched fundraising efforts around claims that LGBT Ugandans have been stoned to death, reports BuzzFeed.
Confusion, secrecy, and doubt surround the claims, from U.S.-based Friends New Underground Railroad and Safe Passage Fund, alleging that seven LGBT Ugandans had been subjected to stoning, with five reportedly dying as a direct result of the practice. The sixth victim allegedly was burned to death after surviving the stoning, the seventh reportedly died of injuries sustained in a separate attack.
Several prominent activists believe those claims may be false and could play into the hands of homophobic forces rallying support in the east African country.
"There are cases of mob justice [in Uganda], but it's not usually an organized stoning like in the Bible and in Nigeria,” Ugandan activist Adrian Jjuuko told BuzzFeed. Jjuuko is executive director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, a group at the forefront of the successful legal challenge to Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was invalidated on a legal technicality by the country's Constitutional Court August 1.
"That’s how I first smelled a rat, that maybe is something is not right," Jjuuko said, referring to the claims of death by stoning, which appears to be a practice uncommon in Ugandan society. BuzzFeed reports that stoning is virtually unheard of in Uganda.
The specific claims of the two American groups in question notwithstanding, false claims of abuse and executions of LGBT Ugandans — whether by foreign or domestic groups — play into the hands of the same homophobic forces responsible for the enactment of the draconinan law, which imposed lifetime prison sentences on many LGBT people and lengthy jail terms on friends, family, neighbors, and landlords who did not report known LGBT people to authorities. Ugandan LGBT rights activists pointed out that foes of equality in east Africa have long said that claims of violence against LGBT people are vastly exaggerated, so false reports could undermine LGBT equality supporters' credibility.
"This has turned out very sensitive here," Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, wrote in an email to other LGBT activists, which was shared with BuzzFeed. "Since the people behind the story stand [behind] it, we have decided to ask the higher authorities in the Ugandan police to investigate."
Jjuuko's group actually sent emissaries to investigate the stoning claims and came up with no evidence to corroborate them. Officials with the organization interviewed dozens of people, including motorcycle taxi drivers, village officials, and others in the locales closest to where the New Friends Underground Railroad said the deaths had taken place. The Quaker group, which is based in Washington State, accompanied its report of alleged stoning deaths with an urgent call for $5,500 in donations.
But according to Jjuuko's organization, one of the villages New Friends Underground Railroad described does not even exist.
For its part, New Friends Underground Railroad says it must operate under extreme secrecy in order to protect the lives of its constituents in Uganda.
"I understand that it is an unsubstantiated hate crime, and I don’t know what to tell you except that we’re going to release information as we’re asked, but we can’t do that now because we’re protecting peoples lives," New Friends Underground Railroad coordinator Gabi Clayton told BuzzFeed's J. Lester Feder in a phone interview.
Another New Friends organizer, described by BuzzFeed as the group's only member with "experience in international relief work," goes by the pseudonym of American Civil War-era Quaker activist Levi Coffin II.
"Let me make this clear: none of you ... will have any direct contact through us with any of our conductors," Coffin said in an August 12 email obtained by BuzzFeed. "Security risks are far too great. … The contacts were all in agreement that they will not talk with you, nor meet with you. One said he would take you on a tour to the place when he believes it is safe to do so. Which is not now. There are far too many people in hiding in this area."
Yet even as Coffin's sources say they are "in hiding," a small and invitation-only LGBT Pride event recently went off without violence or police harassment in broad daylight alone the shores of Lake Victoria.
There is no word yet on how the Ugandan police investigation into the American groups' claims is expected to unfold.