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Uganda charges 67 people after raid of LGBTQ-friendly bar

Uganda has a notoriously poor record on LGBTQ rights, and under its penal code, sex acts “against the order of nature” are punished with life in prison.

Dozens of people were arrested at a gay-friendly bar in Uganda over the weekend and may face up to a year in prison, in what activists say is the latest example of a surge in persecution against the East African country’s LGBTQ community.

Human rights group OutRight Action International and the Uganda-based Kuchu Times reported that more than 100 people were swept up in the early Sunday morning raid, with police reportedly releasing 50 of them and charging the remaining 67.

“The growing intensity of arrests, the clear targeting of an LGBTIQ friendly bar, makes it painfully clear that a witch hunt is being mounted against [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer] Ugandans,” Jessica Stern, executive director of human rights group OutRight Action International, said in a statement shared with NBC News.

The LGBTQ-friendly bar in the Ugandan capital of Kampala where the raid took place has been a hub for Uganda’s LGBTQ community for the past seven years, according to OutRight Action International.

The 67 people not released have been imprisoned without bail and were charged Tuesday with “common nuisance." Patricia Kimera, a Ugandan attorney, called the charges “petty” and said she and her colleagues are campaigning to decriminalize such charges because they give the arresting officers room to abuse people’s rights.

Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer in Uganda, also confirmed that the venue is popular with the city’s gay community and a place where people felt they wouldn’t be judged. While the bar was the only venue to undergo a raid over the weekend, police spokesman Patrick Onyango rejected activists’ claims that the venue was targeted for anti-LGBTQ reasons.

Gay rights activist Kasha Jacqueline rejected police allegations that those arrested in the raid possessed drugs.

“The past has shown that it is difficult to prosecute anyone for being LGBT,” Jacqueline said in a statement. “Using trumped-up drug charges is a new and frightening tactic; one which is really hard to tackle and will make our battle even tougher.”

Sunday’s police raid comes among concerns that the country’s infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act — colloquially known as the “Kill the Gays” bill due to its inclusion of capital punishment for gay sex — has made headlines once again.

The bill was passed by the Ugandan Parliament in 2013, and signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni in 2014. That same year, it was invalidated on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court of Uganda. But just last month, Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo said that the government planned to reinstate the bill in parliament, though that assertion has been denied by Musevini’s office.

Since renewed talk of the so-called Kill the Gays Bill, a series of attacks have threatened the Ugandan LGBTQ community, according to OutRight Action International. On Oct. 21, for example, 16 people were arrested for “trafficking in persons” and “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, the organization reported. OutRight also alleged that four people have been killed in suspected homophobic hate crimes.

“The resurfacing of the anti-homosexuality bill in a country which already prescribes life imprisonment for same-sex relations could only have had one intention — to increase hate and stigma against LGBTIQ people, putting them at heightened risk of arbitrary detention and attack,” Stern said.

Uganda has a notoriously poor track record on LGBTQ rights that dates back to British colonial times, and under the country’s penal code, sex acts “against the order of nature” are punished with life in prison. In a new report released by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, the East African nation was ranked 113 out of 174 countries on LGBTQ acceptance.

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