The Ugandan government is backing a tough anti-homosexuality bill that opposition leaders fear could be used to discredit its political opponents.

The proposed law, currently before parliament, would introduce some of the toughest anti-gay punishments in the world, with a minimum life sentence for anyone convicted of having gay sex, and a mandatory death penalty if they were HIV-positive.

Kizza Besigye, the leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change, told the Financial Times that a political motive might lie behind the proposed law.

“The crimes that are being created may be for the purpose of political persecution, because even if you are convicted or not, the intention is to show you as deviant.”

Mr Besigye ran against Yoweri Museveni, the president, in the last election in 2006. His unsuccessful campaign was dogged by charges of rape and treason that he said were politically motivated. Of the 54 days of the official campaign, Mr Besigye had to spend 27 in court or jail.

If passed, the new law could give the government scope to bring politically motivated charges against critics. Mr Besigye said: “The enthusiasm with which the anti-
homosexuality bill has been introduced I find suspicious and dubious and ominous.”

The bill is being sponsored by a first-term lawmaker but has the public backing of many ministers. Mr Besigye said the issue was being used to divert attention away from “the real urgent issues – human rights abuses, rampant corruption”.

Mr Museveni, a former guerrilla leader, has been in power since 1986 and changed the constitution so that he could seek another term in 2006.

Human rights activists and HIV/Aids specialists in Uganda, along with Mr Museveni’s foreign allies, have voiced outrage about the bill. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, called it “a very serious potential violation of human rights”.

Britain and Canada have expressed strong concerns and Sweden has threatened to cut off aid to Uganda.

The draft bill would also introduce a three-year prison sentence for anyone who was aware of homosexual activity and failed to report it to the authorities within 24 hours. Its proponents said the proposed law reflected the will of Uganda’s people. In this conservative, predominantly Christian country, many people consider homosexuality an immoral habit that can be “cured”.

James Nsaba Buturo, minister of state for ethics and integrity, said: “What we are doing is what the country wants. I see a clash of cultures here and the need for those who are not us to accept our culture.”

He added: “It’s abhorrent that homosexuality should be recognised as a way of life. We understand that in your country it’s normal. But we don’t do that. We don’t even talk about it.”

But Ladislaus Kiiza Rwakafuuzi, a human rights lawyer, said the bill was “born out of bigotry, paranoia, homophobia and over-zealous Christians”.

However, he doubted whether the government devised the proposed law as a tool for neutralising political opponents.

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