KAMPALA, Uganda — A Ugandan court on Friday invalidated an anti-gay bill signed into law earlier this year, pleasing activists and watchdog groups who called the measure draconian.
The Constitutional Court declared the law illegal because it was passed during a parliamentary session that lacked a quorum.
Activists erupted in cheers after the court ruled the law “null and void,” but some cautioned that the fight was not over: The state could appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court, and legislators might try to reintroduce new anti-gay measures. Also, a colonial-era law that criminalizes sex acts “against the order of nature” still remains in effect in Uganda, allowing for continued arrests.
The invalidated law provided jail terms of up to life for those convicted of engaging in homosexual sex. It also allowed lengthy jail terms for those convicted of the offenses of “attempted homosexuality” as well as “promotion of homosexuality.”
Although the legislation has wide support in Uganda, it has been condemned in the West.
The United States has withheld or redirected funding to some Ugandan institutions accused of involvement in rights abuses, but the ruling Friday might win the Ugandan delegation a softer landing in the U.S. next week as it heads to Washington for a gathering led by President Obama.
The panel of five judges on the East African country’s Constitutional Court said the speaker of parliament acted illegally when she allowed a vote on the measure despite at least three objections — including from the country’s prime minister — over a lack of a quorum when the bill was passed Dec. 20.
“The speaker was obliged to ensure that there was a quorum,” the court said in its ruling. “We come to the conclusion that she acted illegally.”
The courtroom was packed with Ugandans opposing or supporting the measure.
Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan gay leader, said the ruling was a “step forward” for gay rights, even though he was concerned about possible retaliation.
Ugandan lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, an attorney for the activists, said the ruling “upholds the rule of law and constitutionalism in Uganda.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the decision as a “victory for the rule of law,” according to a statement read by U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric. “He pays tribute to all those who contributed to this step forward, particularly the human rights activists in Uganda who spoke out at great personal risk.”
Lawyers and activists challenged the anti-gay law after it was enacted in February on the grounds that it was illegally passed and that it violated certain rights guaranteed in Uganda’s constitution.
Nicholas Opiyo, a Ugandan lawyer who was among the petitioners, welcomed the ruling but said there is a missed opportunity to debate the substance of the law. “The ideal situation would have been to deal with the other issues of the law, to sort out this thing once and for all,” Opiyo said.
— Associated Press