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American Jewish World Services Implicated in Charges Against Ugandan Human Rights Lawyer

Opinion by Melanie Nathan, Executive Director of African HRC, December 26, 2020.

Last week Ugandan Human Rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo was seized by security forces in Kampala. Some days thereafter it was alleged by Ugandan police that he has been arrested on corruption related charges. It was obvious that the timing of his arrest was attached to human rights cases he had worked on and the current political climate, where any opposition to dictatorial President Yoweri Museveni is being clamped down on with brutal force. The Museveni regime is clearly intent on scapegoating homosexuality, yet again, to serve his campaign. In doing this American organization is implicated. The Ugandan Press is reporting that at the root of the Opiyo arrest is a grant received by CHAPTER FOUR, the organizations he directs, from an American organization, AJWS- American Jewish World Services. It seems that a Chapter Four Board member Stephen Tumwesigye has acknowledged receipt of the grant from AWJS to Chapter Four. It is not unusual for American organizations to support non-profits in African countries with grants to further their human rights work. However in this instance it is being demonized and associated with corruption, because of the alleged LGBTQI mission of AJWS, in a realm where homosexuality is considered a criminal offense under Uganda’s Penal Code.

The Article by Chimp Reports (screenshots below) showcases the Museveni reflection on this situation, and the clear motivation. For decades of being in office Museveni has rallied Ugandans by scapegoating homosexuality as a core issue, to vote for him. This time is no different and Opiyo is the pawn. We have seen this same play back in 2013, and before.

Museveni has been President of Uganda for over 30 years. To hold onto his presidency he presided over legislative amendments to eradicate the age limit for a President in the country. He has gone to great lengths to ensure his presidency and his dictatorship, and in so doing is well apprised at weaponizing the issue of homosexuality. In February 2014, Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act (known as The Kill the Gays Bill) into law. As it turns out in August of that same year the Bill was declared null and void by a panel of five judges, who ruled that the speaker of Parliament acted illegally when she allowed a vote on the measure despite at least three objections that not enough MPs were in attendance, with a failed quorum. So the Bill was never adjudicated upon the merits as to its conditionality. That remains the case to this day.

The challenge to the law was brought by 10 petitioners, including academics, journalists, opposition MPs, human rights activists and rights groups. They claimed that it violated the constitutional right to privacy and dignity, as well as the right to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Noting that 95% of general populace in Uganda consider LGBTQI people satanic and an abomination. For years the ruling Museveni Party has threatened to bring the Bill (originally sponsored by MP David Bahati, as influenced by U.S. evangelicals) back for a Parliamentary vote. However to have the Bill continue to wait on the sideline, in the balance, enables it to continue as a political ping-pong ball, to be employed when needed, at times such as now. It is now that Museveni desperately seeks a unifying tool to avert the strong political opposition he is so clearly suffering during this January 2021 election cycle.

Let us be clear - there is absolutely nothing illegal about Chapter Four accepting an international grant to do its work. This work is not directed at campaigns, and there is no law that declares it illegal to accept a grant to defend people's rights and the constitution. However it is important for western organizations to note that their support of Ugandan groups, in a climate that is as oppressive as Uganda, comes with great risks to those receiving the support, which can always be spun, twisted and weaponized, as seems to be happening in this case.

I am considered by the U.S. courts as a country conditions expert for Uganda on the issues impacting homosexuality and LGBTQI people seeking asylum. I receive well sourced information from Uganda. It is my expert opinion that in this very instance, without seeing actual evidence to the contrary, that this case against human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo is trumped up, designed to intimidate and oppress him, his colleagues, and all opposition of Museveni, as well as intended to rally the populace into Museveni's voting court, scapegoating LGBTQI rights and individuals as a weaponized method. Additionally this is also designed to thwart further Western support of human rights groups in Uganda, which have the courage to highlight the Museveni regime's infractions and brutality. This is a very fine line to balance. I am open to any questions.



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