2 February 2011

Gay rights activist beaten to death after receiving threats

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A leading gay rights activist whose photo was printed on the front page of a Ugandan newspaper that called for homosexuals to be hanged was bludgeoned to death at his home near Kampala last week, report Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19.

David Kato, an advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) in a country where homosexuality is illegal and punishable with up to 14 years in jail, was beaten to death by an unidentified assailant who entered his home on 26 January.

His death came just three weeks after winning a court case against the Ugandan tabloid "Rolling Stone". The Supreme Court ruled that "Rolling Stone" violated Kato and others' right to privacy. The victory prevented the paper from repeating stories similar to one in October that had a "Hang Them" headline, alongside pictures, names and residential addresses of members of the gay community.

IFEX interim member Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) applauded the judgement, saying that freedom of expression comes with a responsibility to protect and promote other people's rights.

According to the IFEX members, Kato had faced increasing threats and harassment after featuring prominently in the "Rolling Stone" article. ARTICLE 19 voiced deep concern that "some within the media and political leadership continue to spread anti-gay sentiments and at occasions openly incite violence against sexual minorities."

"The Independent" said that others featured on the "Rolling Stone" list have been driven out of their homes by stone-throwing mobs.

"There's been fear, but it's now reached a new level," Pepe Julian Onziema, a fellow rights campaigner and one of two other people who brought the case against the newspaper, told "The Independent". "People are really, really scared.

"Throughout the court case David was receiving threats, there were text messages and phone calls. I spoke to him less than an hour before he died to talk about security because we're all being harassed. Then I called him an hour later and his phone was off."

Kato feverishly opposed the anti-homosexuality bill, introduced in parliament in October 2009 to make homosexuality punishable by a fine and life imprisonment - and death for persistent offenders.

According to Human Rights Watch, Kato had said the bill was "profoundly undemocratic and un-African." Despite strong international condemnation, the bill is still under discussion.

The bill was drawn up after a delegation of Christian missionaries from the U.S. attended a conference in Uganda and suggested that some homosexuals could change their sexual orientation through prayer, reports "The Independent".

According to "The Independent", 85 percent of Uganda's population is Christian, and homosexuality is illegal in 37 countries in Africa.

Giles Muhame, the editor of "Rolling Stone", condemned the murder and said the paper had not wanted gays to be attacked. "If he has been murdered, that's bad and we pray for his soul," Muhame told Reuters. "There has been a lot of crime, it may not be because he is gay. We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality, not for the public to attack them. We said they should be hanged, not stoned or attacked."

Police have said there was no indication the murder had anything to do with Kato's sexual orientation and that he was killed by robbers responsible for the recent deaths of more than 10 people in the area. The IFEX members are calling for an impartial and independent investigation.

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