Uganda: Mourning Murder of Gay-Rights Activist

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David Kato, an advocacy officer for the gay rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda, was found with serious wounds to his head at his home in Uganda's capital Kampala, late Wednesday Jan 26, 2011, and later died of his injuries.

Two days after leading Ugandan gay-rights activist David Kato was bludgeoned to death at his home in Kampala, his friends and family gathered for his funeral on Friday. As hundreds of Kato's supporters mourned, they rejected the police line that he had been the victim of a violent robbery. Many of those who knew Kato fear that his murder was the result of the harsh anti-gay rhetoric coming from the nation's politicians and its media. "He knew his life was at risk," says Dennis Wamala, the program director at Icebreakers, a gay and lesbian support group. The killing has "sent a chill through everyone's spine."

Kato and other rights activists in Uganda shot to international prominence in 2009 after lawmaker David Bahati announced a bill which initially called for the death penalty against anyone who practices homosexuality. Kato, director of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda, became known as one of the bill's most outspoken opponents. Then last October, a little-known Ugandan newspaper called Rolling Stone ran Kato's photo on its front page with the headline 100 PICTURES OF UGANDA'S TOP HOMOS LEAK and the banner "Hang Them." The paper went on to claim that Ugandan gays were recruiting "innocent kids," adding "Parents face heart-breaks [sic] as homos raid schools." After Kato and others sued Rolling Stone, a Ugandan court ordered it to stop publishing the names of gay people.

Bahati's bill has been criticized by the international community, and the death-penalty clause is likely to be dropped if the bill comes up for a vote — though it would still install harsh legal restrictions against gays. Given the intense Western opposition to the bill, however, President Yoweri Museveni will be under pressure to keep it from passing at all.

The bill and the Rolling Stone articles highlight the strong anti-gay sentiment in Uganda and Africa in general. Many of the Bahati bill's most emphatic supporters are linked to U.S. evangelicals who came to Uganda in 2009 to preach about the need to cure homosexuality. The Americans have since distanced themselves from the proposed law, and Bahati has said that he has not received "a single coin" from outside sources.

But Kato's supporters believe they know where the blame lies. "David's death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S. evangelicals in 2009," said a statement from Valentine Kalende, chair of the domestic gay-rights organization Freedom and Roam Uganda. "The Ugandan government and the so-called U.S. evangelicals must take responsibility for David's blood."

Shortly after Kato's killing, the Ugandan police announced that they had arrested one suspect — Kato's driver — and were looking for another. Maj. Gen. Kale Kayihura, Uganda's inspector general of police, said the activist was seemingly killed in a robbery. "The circumstances surrounding this incident have no indication regarding Kato's campaign against the Anti-Homosexuality Bill before Parliament," Kayihura said in a statement.

Rejecting the idea that the rhetoric surrounding his bill had anything to do with Kato's slaying, and contradicting the police's theory, Bahati tells TIME that early indications suggest Kato was in fact killed in a dispute over foreign donations to gay-rights groups in Uganda. "I want to send our heartfelt condolences to the family of the late David Kato," he says, going on to refer to Kato as "a troubled soul who worked long and hard on behalf of those who promote homosexuality and fund activities aimed at destroying the future of our children and the institution of marriage in our country."

Insisting that he does not promote violence against gays, Bahati says he will press ahead to get the bill passed after Uganda's Feb. 18 presidential and parliamentary elections, in which Bahati is running unopposed for his seat in parliament. "Homosexuality is not a human right in Uganda," he says.

Kato's friends call the campaigner one of the most outspoken of Uganda's gay-rights activists. Dr. Thomas Muyunga, of the Most at Risk Populations Network, an outreach group for people with HIV and AIDS, collaborated with Kato on a project to "bring advocacy to the common conversation," as he put it, by talking to ordinary people, not just politicians, about homosexuality. "He had a spirit of 'we' as opposed to 'I,'" Muyunga tells TIME. "For him it was we, we, we can do this. That was David."

Kato's refusal to stay quiet made him many enemies. Wamala, the program director at Icebreakers, says Kato had gone to the police many times to report death threats against him, and that the threats had increased after the court victory against the Rolling Stone story. Now that one of Uganda's biggest voices in support of gay rights has been silenced, Kato's friends worry about who else might be at risk. "People are scared," says Wamala. "People are thinking, 'I'll stay with a friend.' No one wants to be alone anymore. We don't know if this is a systematic thing or a one-off."