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What's Next for Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill? (UPDATE)

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Scroll to the bottom for an update on the situation.

This week nearly 2 million people from around the world have signed online petitions urging Uganda's politicians to reject the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. The bill, introduced by MP David Bahati in October 2009, would make all same-sex intimacy punishable by life in prison, or by death if participants are HIV positive. Even failing to report a gay person to police within 24 hours would lead to jail or fines. The controversial bill was slated to be discussed on Wednesday but a walkout by female MPs over another bill led to a shortened session due to lack of a quorum. Thus, Wednesday's work will resume on Friday, the last scheduled day of business for the Eighth Parliament.

The work of Parliament is important because what they do tomorrow will probably decide the issue. Many petitioners have urged President Museveni to veto the bill. However, under Parliament's Rules of Procedure, the President can refuse to assent to a bill, but this does not end the matter. Parliament may then take up the bill again, pass it and return it to him. Museveni also has the option of returning the bill to Parliament with recommendations but the members are not obliged to include his suggestions. Today, I confirmed with parliamentary spokeswoman Helen Kawesa that the President can return a bill twice but after that the bill becomes law. Given the fact that the Eighth Parliament ends on May 18, it seems unclear to me what would happen if the President refused to assent to the bill or if he returned it to Parliament next week. In any case, the move would be unprecedented since, according Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee chair Stephen Tashobya, President Museveni has not returned any bills to Parliament during his term.

On the current agenda, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is the last of four bills. Two of the three are controversial in their own right, one relating to HIV policy and the other to law regulating marriage and divorce. The Parliament will convene at 10 a.m. instead of the usual 2 p.m. for a full day's session. The position of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill on the agenda makes it the most vulnerable to the loss of a quorum, or to time running out. Much of the order of business is at the discretion of the Speaker of the House, Edward Ssekandi. However, even the bill does not pass tomorrow, it may still have life. According to spokeswoman Kawesa, members could vote tomorrow to continue all unfinished business to the next Parliament. Another theory I have heard but cannot confirm is that the incoming Speaker could decide to continue bills from the previous Parliament.

David Bahati and GLBT activists in Uganda agree about one thing: The bill has wide support in Parliament and is likely to pass if it comes to the floor for second and third readings. As unusual as it may sound to observers outside Uganda, Bahati believes he has compromised as the bill has moved forward. This week Bahati detailed to me and others recommended changes in the bill as suggested by the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee. Bahati said they recommend dropping the death penalty and the sections criminalizing "attempted homosexuality" and failure to report a gay person to police. While there may be other suggestions, Bahati emphasized to NPR this morning that the bill addresses "promotion of homosexuality." The bill criminalizes using any "electronic devices," including cell phones, "for purposes of homosexuality or promoting homosexuality." Thus, someone who simply uses a cell phone to arrange a meeting of a friend or a gay advocacy group could be considered guilty of a crime. Let me hasten to add that the committee report is not yet available and we will only know what the changes are if and when the bill passes.

Given the time difference, we should know something by early afternoon on the East Coast. In my view, there is no acceptable version of the bill. Even with the changes described by Bahati, the lives of all Ugandans will be more dangerous, given the reach of the bill into their private lives.

UPDATE: Despite being called to business today by Speaker Edward Ssekandi, Uganda's parliamentary session adjourned sine die without taking any action on pending legislation, including the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. According to parliamentary spokeswoman, Helen Kawesa, Parliament was stalled on a "technicality." She said there is no Cabinet in place since it was dissolved in preparation for the end of the Eighth Parliament, thus the Speaker decided to adjourn the session with no date set for additional business. The effect is that no business will be done on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. According to Ms. Kawesa, it is very unlikely that the Speaker will call an additional session before May 18, when the old Parliament ends and the new one begins. Ssekandi appeared to confirm Kawesa's assessment by posting a message on Parliament's website, saying "The term of office for Members of Parliament elected to the Eighth Parliament of Uganda has come to an end."

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