Ugandan LGBTI Activist John Abdallah Wambere Makes Difficult Decision to Seek Asylum in the U.S.
In recent years, the LGBTI community in Uganda has been under escalating political attack, culminating in the 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was signed into law on February 24. That same day, half-way across the world, John Abdallah Wambere’s phone started buzzing relentlessly. Wambere was in the U.S. speaking and raising awareness about the situation in Uganda. The calls were from friends telling him the bad news.
“I was in shock. I was heartbroken,” says John. He and his fellow activists had worked hard to prevent the enactment of the bill, and had held out hope that it would not be signed. Faced with the new prospect of arrest and life imprisonment should he return to Uganda, John made the difficult decision to seek asylum in the U.S.
John’s legal team for his asylum claim includes GLAD attorneys Allison Wright and Janson Wu, as well as private immigration attorney Hema Sarang-Sieminski.
Wambere has been an LGBTI activist for fourteen years. He is the co-founder of Spectrum Uganda Initiatives, a nonprofit organization in Uganda that works to ensure the safety of the LGBTI community, reduce stigma, assist LGBTI Ugandans under arrest, and educate about HIV.
“This has been a very, very difficult decision for me,” says Wambere. “I have devoted my life to working for LGBTI people in Uganda, and it gives me great pain not to be with my community, allies, and friends while they are under increasing attack. But in my heart, I know it is my only option, and that I would be of no use to my community in jail.”
The Anti-Homosexuality Act imposes harsher penalties for same-sex relationships, including life imprisonment. It also imposes new penalties for any activities that are viewed as “aiding and abetting homosexuality” and “promoting homosexuality.” The law is broad in its reach and criminalizes activism and public health education work related to LGBTI individuals, including those living with HIV.
“It is simply not safe for John to return to Uganda,” says Wu. “Even before the bill was signed, John was outed as gay by newspapers, harassed by strangers, received death threats from anonymous phone calls, evicted from his home, and beaten up. Now he also faces life imprisonment should he return.”
Following the signing of the bill, 30,000 Ugandans gathered in a stadium for a rally to thank the president for signing the law. They listened to speakers who called LGBTI people “criminals,” “animals” and “devils.” Since the bill’s signing, LGBTI people in Uganda have been arrested, some have gone underground, and others have fled the country. An HIV organization was infiltrated and shut down by police, and two gay men are currently on trial.
Anti-gay sentiment in Uganda has been promoted by American evangelicals, who travelled to the country to preach and promote what was at the time called the “Kill the Gays” bill because it included the death penalty, which was removed.
“The United States can do two very important things,” says Allison Wright, GLAD Staff Attorney. “We can provide a safer harbor where brave Ugandan LGBTI individuals can continue to speak out and work for change; and we can work to stop the export of prejudice, denouncing the efforts of Americans to spread homophobia in other countries.”
How can we in the U.S. help LGBTI people in Uganda?
The Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Rights, a coalition of Ugandan organizations dedicated to fighting this act, recently published guidelines for international partners on how best to support the work in Uganda. We encourage you to support the work of the Coalition, as well as other Uganda human rights coalitions and organizations, such as Spectrum Uganda Initiatives and Sexual Minorities Uganda.