In a victory activists were unsure they'd get, Uganda's Constitutional Court overturned the country's draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act today, declaring the anti-LGBT law "null and void" because of a parliamentary technicality in how it was passed.
The court determined that when members of Parliament passed the law in December 2013, Speaker Rebecca Kadaga had not established quorum — a required minimum number of members present to vote — effectively invalidating the law.
"The speaker was obliged to ensure that there was a quorum," the court ruled, reports the Associated Press. "We come to the conclusion that she acted illegally."
LGBT activists, attorneys, and allies cheered inside the packed courtroom in Uganda's capital city, Kampala, when the verdict was announced, waving rainbow flags and raising their fists in victory.
Kasha Jaqueline, one of the nation's most prominent LGBT activists, a lesbian and feminist, and the founder of the country's first LGBT group, Freedom and Roam Uganda, was ecstatic upon hearing the ruling, according to her Twitter account. "I am no longer criminal today," Jacqueline tweeted. "We have made history for generations to come. Speak OUT now."
Notably, the court did not rule on the constitutional merits of the law, which imposed lifelong prison sentences on those convicted of "aggravated homosexuality," which included repeat instances of sexual contact with a person of the same sex (regardless of consent), and same-sex relations where any member was either HIV-positive, mentally disabled, or a minor. The law also required landlords to evict LGBT tenants or face seven years in jail, and required friends, neighbors, and family members to report known LGBT people to authorities or face jail time themselves.
The AP notes that the government can appeal the decision to Uganda's Supreme Court, or could pass a new antigay law in its place.
Frank Mugisha, one of the country's leading LGBT activists, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, and one of The Advocate's "40 Under 40" honorees this year, told the AP he was pleased with the ruling, though nervous about possible backlash, as the law enjoyed widespread public support in Uganda.
After confirming that the LGBT advocates safely made it out of the courtroom — amid a swarm of press and antigay demonstrators — Mugisha and his colleagues took to Twitter to celebrate today's victory.
Breaking news , I am officially legal . The constitutional court in Uganda has declared anti homosexuality law 2014 null and void
— Dr. Frank Mugisha (@frankmugisha) August 1, 2014
One of the plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit, a transgender man and self-described human rights defender, said that he was planning to "enjoy this moment fully" upon leaving the courtroom. He would "think about possible petitions and rotten eggs over my head across the road later," he tweeted. That same activist suggested that Mugisha, Jacqueline, and others be named grand marshals of Uganda's 2014 Pride celebration, which activists were already planning before the decision, but which will now likely be a celebration of thanksgiving, according to the activist.
And while the activists celebrated today's decision, they were also realistic that the battle is not yet won in the east African nation where homosexuality is still illegal.
"We welcome this ruling and Uganda's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community can celebrate a small victory against oppression," Mugisha told The Guardian. "However, we are disappointed that the case was not heard on its true merits. The truth is that, not only is the anti-homosexuality act persecutory, it is also unconstitutional and illegitimate. This law has no place in our society, which values dignity, privacy and equality for all our citizens. Until the act has been dismissed on the substance of our arguments, we cannot rest easy."
"A ruling at this level represents an historic moment in the fight for the rights of LGBT people in Uganda, and we hope it will serve as an example for other countries in Africa and worldwide," said Human Rights First’s Shawn Gaylord in a statement. "We are deeply impressed with the hard work and dedication of our Ugandan colleagues who put their own lives at risk to seek justice for all. As the law is invalidated, we urge the Obama Administration to stay in close contact with the Ugandan government and civil society leaders to develop a plan for rolling back the sanctions it recently imposed as appropriate."
Similarly, the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign commended the activists who brought the challenge to Uganda's Constitutional Court. "Today Uganda's Constitutional Court declared "null and void" the draconian and discriminatory anti-LGBT law that was enacted earlier this year, and we commend the courageous lawyers, advocates, and allies who stood up for the human rights of LGBT Ugandans," said HRC's director of global engagement, Ty Cobb, in a statement. "We also recognize that the ruling was based on the failure to follow parliamentary procedure during the law's passage, and that Uganda's Parliament could seek to once again further enshrine anti-LGBT bigotry into its nation's law. These past several months have shown that enacting such legislation can have very real and even violent consequences for LGBT people."
Photos below courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson.