Prosecutors have dropped charges against 19 LGBTQ+ Ugandans who were accused of violating social distancing rules, and a court has ordered that they be released.
The 13 gay men, two bisexual men, and four transgender women were arrested March 29 in a safe house in Kyengera, a town near Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, and have been in jail since then. The house is known as a shelter for LGBTQ+ people who are homeless or seeking community, and for those needing treatment for HIV.
They were charged with violating a social distancing order that banned gatherings of more than 10 people and “doing a neglect act likely to spread infection of disease,” Reuters reports, but activists said the arrestees were targeted because of their identity.
The Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, which is representing the detainees, had asked Uganda’s Department of Public Prosecutions to drop the charges because the ban applied to public sites, not shelters, and prosecutors agreed.
“It is the right decision for the DPP to withdraw the charges since it was a targeted arrest with trumped-up charges,” Patricia Kimera, a lawyer with the human rights group, told Reuters.
The judge in the case Monday ordered that the arrestees be released after spending nearly 50 days in jail, and the order was to be delivered Tuesday. Kimera said she visited them Friday and was concerned about their health, as some were showing symptoms of malaria or typhoid.
LGBTQ+ Ugandans have faced persecution for years. Same-sex relations carry a maximum sentence of life in prison, and there was talk last year of reviving an infamous bill that would impose the death penalty in certain instances. But President Yoweri Museveni denied that the bill, which first surfaced in 2009, would be considered anew.
Meanwhile, feminist and LGBTQ+ ally Stella Nyanzi was arrested Monday in Kampala, along with several others, for protesting the delays in food distribution to women and other vulnerable people in the nation, Uganda’s Daily Monitor reports. Nyanzi had been released from prison just two months ago, having served 18 months on charges that she insulted Museveni and his family.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left LGBTQ+ people vulnerable in other countries as well, Reuters notes. There have been reports of homophobic and transphobic violence in South Korea, Egypt, Cameroon, and elsewhere.