Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at a press conference in Juba, South Sudan, in December 2013.Waakhe Simon/AFP/Getty Images
Uganda's president on Monday signed a controversial anti-gay bill, passed on Dec. 20, that imposes harsh penalties for homosexual sex, saying the law is necessary because "arrogant and careless Western groups" had tried to "recruit" Ugandan children into homosexuality.
President Yoweri Museveni signed the bill at his official residence in an event witnessed by government officials, journalists and a team of Ugandan scientists whose report — which found that there is no genetic basis for homosexuality — Museveni has cited as his reason for backing the bill.
"We Africans never seek to impose our view on others. If only they could let us alone," he said, referring to Western pressure not to sign the bill.
Museveni said he previously thought homosexuality was merely "abnormal" sexual behavior that some people were born with — the reason he once was opposed to harsh penalties against gays. Now he said he is convinced that it is a choice made by individuals who may try to influence others. Africans are "flabbergasted" by homosexual behavior, he said.
"The United States is deeply disappointed in the enactment of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. "This is a tragic day for Uganda and for all who care about the cause of human rights. Ultimately, the only answer is repeal of this law.
Government officials applauded after Museveni signed the bill, which was influenced by the preachings of some conservative American evangelicals.
The law punishes first-time offenders with 14 years in jail. It also sets life imprisonment as the penalty for acts of "aggravated homosexuality." The bill originally proposed the death penalty for some homosexual acts, but that was later removed amid international criticism.
The law also makes it illegal to not report gay people and criminalizes the public promotion of homosexuality — including discussions by rights groups.
The law is popular in Uganda, but rights groups worldwide have condemned it as draconian in a country where homosexuality is already illegal. U.S. President Barack Obama urged Museveni not to sign the bill, saying doing so would "complicate" the east African country's relationship with Washington. Obama called the bill "odious" when it was first proposed in 2009.
Pepe Julian Onziema, a prominent Uganda gay activist, said he was disappointed that Museveni signed the bill without taking time to talk to the people targeted by the law: Ugandan homosexuals.
"The president is making this decision because he has never met an openly gay person. That disappoints me," he said. Some in Uganda's gay community repeatedly tried and failed to meet with Museveni, he said.
Museveni, whose popularity has been fading amid criticism that he wants to rule for life, faced pressure from the ruling party to sign the measure.
Some critics believe he is signing the bill in hopes of galvanizing political support within his party, the National Resistance Movement, ahead of a meeting where the party is expected to endorse him as its sole choice in the next presidential election, in 2016, when he will have been in power for 30 years.
David Bahati, the lawmaker behind the bill, told the French news agency Agence France-Presse after the legislation passed, "This is a victory for Uganda. I am glad the parliament has voted against evil. Because we are a God-fearing nation, we value life in a holistic way. It is because of those values that members of parliament passed this bill, regardless of what the outside world thinks."
He argued that the law was needed to deter Western homosexuals, whom he accused of "recruiting" Ugandan children. He said homosexuals from the West threatened to destroy Ugandan families and were luring Ugandan children into gay lifestyles.
Ugandan gays disputed this account, saying that Ugandan political and religious leaders had come under the influence of American evangelicals who want to spread their anti-gay campaign in Africa. Ugandan gays singled out Scott Lively, a Massachusetts evangelical, and sued him in March 2012 under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows noncitizens to file suit in the U.S. if there is an alleged violation of international law.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press