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India govt to challenge gay sex ban as UN slams 'significant step back'

Law minister hints of judicial review to Supreme Court verdict, promises 'quick and firm action'

An Indian gay rights activist at a protest in Kolkata on Wednesday against the Supreme Court ruling reinstating a ban on gay sex.
Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

India's law minister said Thursday that the government has not abandoned efforts to make homosexuality legal, and that the country must take swift action to challenge a Supreme Court decision banning same-sex relations.

The minister, Kapil Sibal, said he supported decriminalizing homosexuality, hinting that the government could seek a judicial review of Wednesday's Supreme Court decision or that parliament could enact a new law.

"We need to take quick and firm action," he told reporters, noting that millions of people in India do not want homosexuality to be a criminal offense.

The comments came as the United Nation’s human rights chief Navi Pillay joined a growing chorus of complaint over the Supreme Court decision.

Pillay said it represented a "significant step back for India" and violated international law.

"Criminalizing private, consensual same-sex sexual conduct violates the rights to privacy and to non-discrimination enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India has ratified," Pillay said in a statement issued from Geneva.

But India's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that only lawmakers could change a colonial-era law that bans same-sex relations and makes them punishable by up to a decade in prison.

The ruling dealt a blow to gay activists who have fought for years for the chance to live openly in India's deeply conservative society.

Sonia Gandhi, chief of the governing Congress party, also lent support to the activists and expressed her disappointment with the court order.

"I hope parliament will address this issue and uphold the constitutional guarantee of life and liberty to all citizens of India, including those directly affected by this judgment," she said in a statement.

Gandhi's son and the party's vice president, Rahul Gandhi, said such personal matters should be left to individuals. "This country is known for its freedom, freedom of expression," he told reporters.

India's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community reacted to the decision with defiance.

"We cannot be forced back into the closet," said Gautam Bhan, an activist who had petitioned the court. "We are not backing off from our fight against discrimination."

Lawyers and supporters of gays, lesbians and transsexuals vowed to continue pressing for the removal of the law, which they say encourages discrimination, even if it is rarely invoked by prosecutors.

The law, dating back to the 1860s, when Britain ruled over South Asia, states that "whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal" can be punished by up to 10 years in prison.

The 2009 New Delhi High Court ruling, which said the law violated fundamental human rights, infuriated conservatives and religious groups who say homosexuality represents a threat to traditional Indian culture.

In a rare alliance, the groups -- including the All India Muslim Law Board, Christian groups and Hindu spiritual leaders -- argued that gay sex is unnatural and that India should maintain the law.

Activists have long argued that the law encourages discrimination and leaves gays, lesbians and bisexuals vulnerable to police harassment or demands for bribes.

Acceptance is slowly growing in India, though, particularly in big cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai. In the last few years, activists have staged large gay pride parades featuring rainbow-colored flags and banners, joyful songs and dancing through the streets.

Gay marriage has legal recognition in 18 countries as well as 16 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia. But in a further blow to the global pro-gay marriage movement, Australia's highest court struck down a landmark law on Thursday that had begun allowing the countries first gay marriages, shattering the dreams of more than two dozen same-sex newlyweds whose marriages will now be annulled less than a week after their weddings. 

The Associated Press

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