Uganda’s government has distanced itself from a controversial anti-gay bill calling for severe penalties on homosexuality after it was reintroduced in parliament this week.
But in a statement released late Wednesday, the government said parliament had the right to debate the legislation, which was shelved last year after widespread condemnation.
“The bill itself was introduced by a backbencher,” said the statement.
“It does not form part of the government’s legislative programme and it does not enjoy the support of the prime minister or the cabinet.
“However, as Uganda is a constitutional democracy, it is appropriate that if a private member’s bill is presented to parliament it be debated.”
David Bahati, the MP behind the legislation, reintroduced the bill on Tuesday after lawmakers voted last year to automatically pass it over to the new session of the parliament. MPs had failed to debate it last time round.
Lawmakers applauded Bahati as the bill — which US President Barack Obama has described as “odious” — was introduced, clapping their hands, thumping the seats in parliament and chanting “our bill”.
Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, but the proposed bill has previously attracted heavy criticism for the draconian penalties it proposed.
It would introduce the death sentence for anyone caught engaging in homosexual acts for the second time, as well as for gay sex where one partner is a minor or has HIV.
It also proposes to criminalise public discussion of homosexuality — including by rights groups — with a sentence of up to seven years in prison.
While the government said that even if the bill were passed it “would not sanction the death penalty,” parliament officials insisted it had been tabled without amendments and still included the controversial clause.
Kampala also accused critics of the bill of ignoring “far graver and far more draconian legislation relating to homosexuality in other countries.”
“One might ask for example, if Uganda enjoyed as close a relationship with the US and European countries as Saudi Arabia (which sentences homosexuals to corporal and capital punishment) would we have attracted the same opprobrium as a result of allowing this parliamentary debate?” the statement said.
The reintroduction of the bill sparked strong criticism from rights groups. Amnesty International urged MPs to reject it.
“If passed, it would represent a grave assault on the human rights of all Ugandans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Michelle Kagari, the rights group’s Africa programme director said this week.