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Two Ugandan Males Face Death Penalty Under Anti-Gay Law

FILE - Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signs a new anti-gay bill that sets harsh penalties for homosexual sex, in Entebbe, Uganda, Feb. 24, 2014.

Two Ugandan males have become the first people who may face the death penalty under Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law.

Prosecutors have accused Julius Byaruhanga in the eastern district of Jinja of performing a sexual act with a boy aged 12. It's unclear if Byaruhanga faces any other charges related to abusing a minor.

The other accused, Michael Opolot, 20, allegedly performed an unlawful act of sexual intercourse with a 41-year-old male in the eastern city of Soroti.

Justine Balya, a lawyer from the group Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum who is defending Opolot, said her client was reportedly seen engaging in a sexual act in a public space with a person who has a disability.

Both of the accused, who have been charged with “aggravated homosexuality,” could face the death penalty under the new law signed in May this year.

“Having the death penalty on the books, that changes significantly the protections that one is entitled to while they are waiting for trial," Bayla said. "And it certainly makes trial remand a punishment in and of itself.”

Because the case involves a capital offense, Opolot will likely have to wait three to four years for his case to be heard. Balya said several other cases involving alleged homosexuality are waiting to go to trial in Ugandan courts.

“We also have a case of a lady who has been charged with promotion of homosexuality and homosexuality because of what they allege people were doing at a massage parlor that she owns. And of course, there’s a host of other cases that are not in court but where people have been charged formally with homosexuality, promotion of homosexuality, even child grooming in one case.”

Frank Mugisha, a lawyer and activist, said lesbian, gay and transgender people are being persecuted in Uganda.

“Those people have not identified themselves as LGBTQ," Mugisha said. "But the fact that there’s an assumption that they were engaging in same-sex acts. And then they are saying one person is living with disability. Which automatically the prosecution will have to prefer the death penalty under aggravated homosexuality. It’s exactly as activists what we’ve been saying that this law can be wrongly interpreted.”

Uganda last hanged a convict in 1999 and in 2005 formally scrapped the death penalty.

But the anti-homosexuality law reintroduced the death penalty for the offense of aggravated homosexuality, a move that gay rights activists have strongly criticized and are challenging in the courts.

During the passing of the law, government authorities argued that they were protecting the moral values and principles of Ugandan society against what they called corrupt Western values.

Meanwhile, journalists and media houses in Uganda say they fear heavy fines or the loss of their registration if they are somehow found guilty of “promoting homosexuality,” a term critics say has been vaguely explained in the law.