Editors' note:Paul LeGendre is the Director of the Fighting Discrimination program at Human Rights First. Paul has worked extensively with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on human rights issues and particularly hate crime laws and enforcement.
Just a few months ago, I spent a few days going from meeting to meeting with LGBTI Ugandan activist Julius Kaggwa, who was in the U.S. to receive our organization's Human Rights Award. No matter how many times I heard him discuss what was happening on the front lines of the effort to defeat the anti-homosexuality bill pending in Uganda, I was always struck by the courage displayed by Julius and his fellow advocates. It was inspiring to hear that despite concerns for their own personal safety, Julius and his Ugandan colleagues remained determined to see the bill defeated and to secure a more tolerant future for their homeland.
It was hard not to think back to those meetings as we learned this week of the tragic slaying of prominent Ugandan human rights leader David Kato, who died after he was severely beaten in his home with a hammer. David had worked as an advocate and litigation officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).
In October 2010, the Rolling Stone, a self-made Ugandan-based magazine, included Kato's name and contact information in its list of prominent gay rights activists. The information ran with a banner over a collection of photos reading "Hang Them."
This magazine piece was one of the most disturbing developments to find its roots in a growing initiative to criminalize homosexuality throughout Uganda. A notable supporter of this "initiative" is David Bahati, a Ugandan parliamentarian who has achieved international notoriety for introducing the "Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009," a bill that sought to introduce the death penalty for certain same-sex consensual acts. Commenting on the Rolling Stone article, Bahati said that the campaign "would have been very helpful to law enforcement of these people; it would have been a great source for law enforcement."
In response to the article, David Kato and two other litigants initiated a court challenge to Rolling Stone. Earlier this month, on January 3, they won their case. The High Court of Uganda ruled that the newspaper had violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights to dignity and privacy and issued a permanent injunction. It was a decision that seemed to indicate a measure of progress in Uganda, but Kato's murder has made clear just how difficult the journey toward tolerance remains.
David Kato will be remembered for his dedication to his community and to Uganda, where he remained a fearless and outspoken voice for the rights of LGBTI persons in the face of threats to his life. His death in the wake of the Rolling Stone court ruling should serve as a wake-up call to Uganda's leaders of the dangers of silence and inaction in the face of the deadly homophobic environment that has taken root in Uganda and to which many political and religious leaders - in Uganda and abroad - have contributed.
Human Rights First is closely monitoring the situation on the ground in monitor and plans to continue working to support local advocates like Julius Kaggwa and Kato. It is also calling on Ugandan police to carry out a thorough investigation into Kato's death, including into the motives behind the actions of the perpetrator. (At this time, there are reports that the police may have hastily qualified the attack as aggravated robbery.)
In addition to a full investigation of this crime, Human Rights First is calling on Ugandan President Museveni to send an unequivocal signal to Ugandans and to the world that his nation condemns such crimes and will demand an impartial investigation into the murder. He should also take steps to ensure the security of LGBTI activists and individuals who remain on the front lines of this important fight.