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A Ugandan Gay Rights Activist Asks for US Asylum

by Paige Sutherland
Wednesday May 7, 2014
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Ugandan gay-rights activist John Abdallah Wambere holds a Ugandan newspaper
Ugandan gay-rights activist John Abdallah Wambere holds a Ugandan newspaper  (Source:AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

Fearing prison or even death, an openly gay activist from Uganda is seeking asylum in the United States since his home country toughened criminal punishment against gays.

John Abadallah Wambere came to the U.S. for a speaking tour in February, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni three days later passed the new measure that strengthened penalties against gay sex, including life in prison.

Wambere, 41, who now lives in Cambridge, said Tuesday, one day before his visa expires, that it was a heartbreaking decision to leave behind the gay community he has supported for over a decade and to leave his 16-year-old daughter.

"But my government is unable and unwilling to protect us from harm," Wambere said, fighting back tears.

The leader of the gay-rights group Spectrum Uganda Initiatives has been jailed, harassed, publicly ousted by several newspapers and had his life threatened. And attacks upon the gay community are only increasing since the law passed, Wambere said at a press conference.

After the bill was signed, more than 30,000 people gathered in Uganda to celebrate, he said. "They listened to speakers who called LGBTI people animals, criminals and devils," Wambere said.

Currently, 38 of Africa’s 53 countries criminalize homosexuality. Activists estimate that hundreds of thousands of gay people live in Uganda, but that many remain under the radar for fear of prosecution.

In 2009, a Ugandan measure to impose the death penalty for "serial offenders" failed. After the country’s most recent anti-gay law passed, the World Bank suspended $90 million in funding to the country, and Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands redirected their aid.

President Barack Obama has described the legislation as morally wrong and said it could jeopardize U.S. relations with the African nation.

Wambere, whose friend and fellow activist, David Kato, was killed in 2011 for being openly gay, said even people who are associated with the gay community are prosecuted. He said he could not be seen near his daughter’s school for fear of her safety.

Wambere will be allowed to remain in the U.S. while his request for asylum is pending but will most likely be unable to work during that time. The process generally takes no more than 60 days.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would not comment on his request.

Wambere said if he is granted asylum, he would continue to advocate for the gay community here and in his home country.

"There is a lot of work that needs to be done in the U.S. and in Uganda," he said. "The struggle continues."

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