Uganda: Police Raid Queer Kampala Film Festival

Ugandan police raided and forcibly closed the Queer Kampala International Film Festival on December 9, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The festival featured films and documentaries portraying the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people. Police offered no formal legal basis for forcibly shutting down the festival.

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The festival, held for the second year in Kampala, began on December 8. The festival organiser, Kamoga Hassan, told Human Rights Watch that the opening night was successful. A large audience responded positively to the films, he said, which included stories of LGBTIQ people coming to terms with their identities, fighting discrimination, engaging in activism, and falling in love. Organizers had hoped the stories shown during the festival would help to educate Ugandans about communities that face discrimination and marginalisation in their country.

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“The raid on the Queer Kampala International Film Festival is just the latest in a series of attacks on freedoms of expression, association and assembly for all Ugandans, including sexual and gender minorities.” said Neela Ghoshal, senior researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch. “Ugandans should be able to watch educational films about LGBT people without having to fear the police.”

On December 9, shortly before the films began, organisers received a tip-off that police intended to raid the festival and arrest participants if they did not disband. The organisers asked participants to leave. Shortly thereafter, three police officers entered the venue and told organizers that they were shutting down the festival because the films – many of which have received international acclaim – were “pornographic,” Hassan said.

“I was very surprised that they had to use a narrative that we were screening pornographic films – these were basically documentaries about people’s lived realities,” Hassan said, “Our constitution is clear. We’re not breaking laws.”

Uganda’s criminal code includes a colonial-era law prohibiting “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” with possible sentences of up to life in prison. The law very rarely leads to prosecutions, but police have used it as a pretext to shut numerous events targeting LGBT audiences and their allies over the past several years, such as the entire 2017 annual Pride Week scheduled events, parades and a fashion show in previous Pride Weeks, and a human rights education workshop in 2012.

In January 2014, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which criminalised the undefined “promotion” of homosexuality and led to arrests, evictions, firings, and hate crimes against LGBT people. In August 2014, Uganda’s Constitutional Court declared the law null and void.

Ugandan officials have repeatedly banned events that they falsely claim “promote” homosexuality, Human Rights Watch said. A July 2014 High Court ruling, in violation of free assembly rights, endorsed Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo’s closure in 2012 of a human rights workshop organised by LGBT activists, claiming that workshop participants were “promoting” or “inciting” same-sex acts. Activists have appealed the ruling, but their appeal is yet to be heard.

In 2016, police raided a fashion show organised as part of the annual Pride celebrations – beating and humiliating participants, taking pictures of them without consent, and causing one participant to suffer severe injuries from jumping out of a window to escape police violence.

In August 2017, Lokodo ordered police to shut down all Pride events, stating that “No gay gathering and promotion can be allowed in Uganda,” media reports said.

“Human rights organizations have for the past few months been conducting human rights training amongst police officers,” said Clare Byarugaba, coordinator of the Equality and Non-discrimination Program at Chapter Four Uganda. “I question the value of these engagements, considering the police service’s continued deliberate suppression and violation of the rights of LGBT Ugandans.”

Ugandan police routinely violate free expression and assembly rights, particularly of people who criticise the government or who voice divergent views. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous instances in which police used excessive force in recent years, including around recent protests against removing a maximum age limit for presidential candidates from Uganda’s laws.

Hassan said he would try to reschedule the film festival after dialogue with the police.

“Police leadership should ensure the festival can be rescheduled and go forward free of harassment,” Ghoshal said. “Being LGBT is not a crime, and neither is seeking to better understand discrimination against LGBT people through film.”