Human Rights Watch has written to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni asking his government to repeal its sodomy laws and end a long record of harassing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Last week the country’s deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhindi called for the criminal law to be used against lesbians and gays in Uganda.

“I call upon the relevant agencies to take appropriate action because homosexuality is an offence under the laws of Uganda,” he said.

“The penal code in no uncertain terms punishes homosexuality and other unnatural offences.”

Section 140 of Uganda’s penal code carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for homosexual conduct, while Section 141 punishes ‘attempts’ at carnal knowledge with a maximum of seven years of imprisonment.

Section 143 punishes acts of “gross indecency” with up to five years in prison, while a sodomy conviction carries a penalty of 14 years to life imprisonment.

“For years, President Museveni’s government has drummed up homophobia and denied the basic rights of LGBT people for his own political advantage,” said Juliana Cano Nieto, researcher in the LGBT rights programme at Human Rights Watch.

“If lesbians and gays can be punished simply for speaking up for their rights, the freedoms of all Ugandans are endangered.”

A poll published yesterday found that 95% of Ugandans want homosexual acts to remain illegal.

Government officials have regularly threatened and harassed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Ugandans.

In October 2004, James Nsaba Buturo, the country’s information minister at the time, ordered police to investigate and “take appropriate action against” a gay association allegedly organised at Uganda’s Makerere University.

State-owned media have repeatedly called for stronger measures against homosexual conduct.

In 2005 an article in the government-ownedNew Vision newspaper urged authorities to crack down on homosexuality.

“The police should visit the holes mentioned in the press, spy on the perverts, arrest and prosecute them,” it read.

“Relevant government departments must outlaw or restrict websites, magazines, newspapers and television channels promoting immorality – including homosexuality, lesbianism, pornography, etc.”

In 2005 Uganda became the first country in the world to introduce laws banning same-sex marriage.

Human Rights Watch’s plea for tolerance came a week after an organisation called Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a coalition of four LGBT organisations, launched a campaign called “Let us Live in Peace.”

In a press conference in Kampala on August 16th, the group condemned discrimination and violence against LGBT people, as well as the life-threatening silence about their sexualities in HIV/AIDS prevention programmes.

In response, Ethics and Integrity Minister James Nsaba Buturo told the BBC on August 17th that homosexuality was “unnatural.”

He denied charges of police harassment of LGBT people, but also declared, “We know them, we have details of who they are.”

In the wake of the SMUG press conference, Pastor Martin Ssempa organised an August 21 rally in Kampala to address what he called “a call for action on behalf of victims of homosexuality.”

Calling homosexuality “a criminal act against the laws of nature,” Ssempa led hundreds of demonstrators demanding government action against LGBT people.

They also called for the deportation of an American intern at national newspaper The Monitor who had reported on the experiences of gays and lesbians in Uganda.

Ssempa, whose Makerere Community Church has received HIV-prevention funding through the Bush administration’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) programme, is well-known in Uganda for his campaigns against condom use and homosexuality.

He has burned condoms in public to condemn their use in HIV prevention.

“Harassing rights defenders and silencing discussion of sexuality threaten more than freedom – they threaten life,” said Cano Nieto.

“State homophobia and well-funded fanaticism are undermining Uganda’s efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.”

Human Rights Watch called on the government to end homophobic statements by top officials and to ensure full integration of issues of sexual orientation and gender identity into nationwide HIV prevention and care programmes.