Police arrest and 'out' dozens during an LGBT engagement party in Uganda

Ugandan police arrested 44 people during a party to celebrate the engagement of a gay couple held at an LGBT shelter in Kampala in late May, claiming that they had intervened over health and safety violations. Videos of the arrest, which circulated widely on social media, outed some of the attendees, who had been in the closet. Human rights organisations are worried about the implications of this arrest and mass “outing” – in Uganda, homosexuality is banned and severely punishable by law.

This video, showing police arresting a group of LGBT individuals on May 31, 2021, circulated widely on social media.
This video, showing police arresting a group of LGBT individuals on May 31, 2021, circulated widely on social media. © Observers

While a group of men wait for police to take them away, the person filming the video, presumably one of the officers, says, "Look at me! Say it: 'I am the bride!'"

This video was circulated widely on social media before being picked up by media outlets on June 1, 2021:

An association called Rainbow Railroad posted excerpts of the video on its Twitter account on June 2, 2021. It underlines that no official wedding was taking place.

Neighbours tipped off police about the party taking place, according to Luke Owoyesigyir, the spokesperson for the Kampala Municipal Police. 

"All the men had make-up and some were dressed as female[s] in dresses and wigs," he told the media outlet NilePost.

After their arrest, some of the men were subjected to anal examinations in order to seek evidence of sexual intercourse, according to LGBT rights organisations. After spending a week in Kitalya Prison, the 44 people arrested that night were released on June 8 and are awaiting trial. 

Police deliberately filmed and leaked the video, as well as photos of the arrest, in order to “out” the party guests, according to several members of LGBT rights organisations. They say that no one else could have done it – the police were the only party present during the arrest, and the person filming the video is in a position of authority.  

'They have nowhere to go. Some of them lost their families, their jobs'

The engagement party was taking place in a shelter run by Happy Family Youth Uganda. The organisation provides temporary accommodation to LGBT people who can no longer live with their families or in their villages due to their sexual orientation. The association helps them find housing and teaches them trade jobs so that they can support themselves once they leave. 

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to a member of the organisation, who said it's not uncommon for police to film the arrests of LGBT people in order to “out” them. He is worried about the severe consequences this may have for these individuals:

At the moment, many of them have nowhere to go. Some of them lost their families, their jobs and their dignity. Moreover, we can no longer run our shelter in that location because it is not safe anymore. If people come back here, they might even get killed or it can bring other trouble. Some of them will be housed at different shelters but we need to find a new location. Right now, we are looking for support to relocate.

The media picked up some of the photos taken during the arrest.
The media picked up some of the photos taken during the arrest. © Social networks

Frank Mugisha is the president of the organisation Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), which is made up of several LGBT rights organisations in Uganda. He told our team about the way police treat LGBT people:

Most of the places, like bars or nightclubs, where LGBT people can go to socialise and express themselves have been shut down or subject to police raids. It’s become difficult for owners to maintain them. And a lot of people from the LGBT community are afraid to go because they could get raided at any moment. 

The Ugandan parliament recently passed a law on sexual offences that would further criminalise homosexuality in Uganda. Since then, the number [Editor’s note: of arrests of this type] has increased. But even though the law hasn’t taken effect yet, the authorities are using the media engagement and the statements made by politicians as an excuse to increase the level of harassment.

Human Rights Watch says that the new law on sexual offences, which parliament adopted on May 3, 2021, doesn’t offer enough protection to victims of sexual violence and provides mechanisms to persecute LGBT people and sex workers in Uganda. 

In March 2020, police raided another LGBT shelter near Kampala, under the guise of enforcing social distancing rules to fight the spread of Covid-19. A video filmed during the arrest shows the local mayor getting involved in the arrest, interrogating people and beating them with a baton. The mayor was summoned before a court in August 2020 and accused of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.