Prominent Ugandan gay rights activist slain

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

“Hang them,” read the Ugandan tabloid headline published with a photo of David Kato and other gay rights activists.

The 42-year-old was fatally beaten with a hammer on Jan. 26.

“An atmosphere of extreme homophobia in Uganda has clearly contributed to a climate where LGBT people are unsafe,” said Sharon Groves, the deputy director of the religion and faith program at the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights group in the United States.

Memorials for Kato took place in late January and early February in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as in Cape Town, South Africa, and Uganda. In New York on Feb. 3, activists gathered at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza for a candlelight vigil, then marched in silence to the Uganda House, the Ugandan mission, and then on to the United Nations headquarters.

“David Kato was a hero not just to LGBT Ugandans, but to all Ugandans, and to all supporters of human rights,” said Frank Mugisha. He worked with Kato at Sexual Minorities Uganda, an LGBT rights group, and spoke at the vigil.

Kato, a schoolteacher by profession, served as the advocacy officer for SMUG. Colleagues described him as a small man with a powerful presence.

“David was an important leader of the Ugandan and East African LGBT movement,” said Cary Alan Johnson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

Kato lived for a period in South Africa, where, with the uprising against Apartheid, he was energized – activated. “In South Africa, I fought for their liberation in Johannesburg, so when I came home … I had the same momentum – I tried to liberate my own community,” Kato said in a video posted on YouTube last year.

He became one of the most widely known and respected gay rights activists in East Africa and gained international attention as he campaigned the last two years against proposed legislation that would criminalize LGBT advocacy and lead to death sentences for homosexual conduct in his country.

Kato endured repeated threats, and, as the controversy over the pending Anti-Homosexuality Bill escalated, a Ugandan tabloid called Rolling Stone ran a front-page “expose” under the headline “Hang them” that included the names and addresses of the country’s top “100 homosexuals.”

In the month before his death, Kato and two other gay activists won a successful invasion of privacy claim against the periodical. The judge in the case issued an injunction banning Rolling Stone (no connection to the U.S. entertainment magazine) from publishing similar reports.

But threats and harassment continued. In the days before his death, Kato’s e-mail account was hacked, according to SMUG.

On Jan. 26, the activist was found in his home suffering serious wounds, which authorities later said were inflicted with a hammer. Kato died on the way to the hospital.

As Kato’s colleagues, relatives and friends mourned, they shared a concern that Ugandan authorities would fail to conduct a full and fair investigation into the killing. Those concerns remained after police announced that a suspect was in custody, and he had confessed.

“I have no doubt that homophobia in its many vicious forms is responsible for his tragic death,” Johnson said.

Police, even in the earliest reports of the killing, said that Kato’s death was not related to his sexual orientation and that robbers who had killed at least 10 people in the past two months were involved. Authorities took one man, a driver for Kato, into custody and said they were searching for a second, a housekeeper recently released from prison.

In later reports, police said 22-year-old Enock Nsubuga, in his confession of the killing, said that he became enraged at Kato, who had promised him money for sexual favors.

Responding to reports that Kato’s death was the result of gay-on-gay violence or a robbery-gone-bad, the Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law stated: “In the climate of fear and homophobic hatred stirred up in Uganda by political and religious leaders … a murder of this kind was increasingly possible. The question was not whether it would happen, but when.

“David, along with fellow activists, had been facing direct intimidation, including receiving threats, for

many, many months before he was killed. The matter now, therefore, is to ensure that those who survive can be better protected from violence.”

Pressure on Ugandan authorities to fairly and fully investigate Kato’s death came also from official sources, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met Feb. 1 in Ethiopia with Gilbert Balibaseka Bukenya, vice president of Uganda, to discuss LGBT rights and Kato’s death, as well as upcoming elections in the country.

In the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Kato’s death “underscores how critical it is that both the government and the people of Uganda, along with the international community, speak out against the discrimination, harassment and intimidation of Uganda’s LGBT community, and work together to ensure that all individuals are accorded the same rights and dignity to which each and every person is entitled.”

Clinton encouraged people to reflect on Kato’s activism and honor his “legacy by continuing the important work to which he devoted his life.”