By Nita Bhalla and Alice McCool
NAIROBI/KAMPALA, April 16 (Openly) - Just before breakfast on a Sunday morning, Ugandan security forces stormed an LGBT+ shelter outside the capital Kampala, accusing more than 20 gay, bisexual and transgender people of spreading the new coronavirus.
Eye-witnesses said the police took everyone's phones and shoes and soldiers bound their hands with rope and marched them barefoot to a nearby police station in Kyengera town.
"At first the only question they kept asking was why there were condoms in house," said Charles Senna, who works at the shelter run by the charity, Children of The Sun Foundation.
"Then they changed to asking why there were so many people in the shelter ... and saying that they were failing to follow the directions of the president on social distancing."
More than two weeks on, 20 members of the group are languishing in prison awaiting trial after being charged with disobeying COVID-19 social distancing rules and risking the spread of the virus.
The raid on the Ugandan shelter, say LGBT+ rights groups, is just one in a rising number of incidents that are taking a toll on Africa's sexual and gender minorities as COVID-19 cases rise across the continent.
"The community already faces so much discrimination but now with this coronavirus, things are getting worse," said Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).
"We've had reports of LGBTQI members being blamed for the virus. Due to lockdowns, many people cannot work and pay rent. We know some are being evicted and forced to return to their families who kicked them out. It's causing a lot of anguish."
African countries have some of the world's most prohibitive laws governing homosexuality. Gay sex is a crime across most of continent, with punishments ranging from imprisonment to death.
Gay rights groups say the laws promote intolerance and discrimination against minorities in the workplace, housing, education and health care, as well as hate crimes like blackmail - with most victims too scared to go to the police for help.
The March 29 raid on the shelter shows the pandemic has given authorities with a history of targeting gay, bisexual and trans Africans a pretext for fresh attacks, said Mawethu Nkosana, an LGBT+ campaigner with civil society group, CIVICUS.
"The arrests have nothing to do with violating COVID-19 social distancing rules, but are based on the state's prejudice against the LGBTI community - this has been the case even before the COVID-19 pandemic," said Nkosana.
"There is no justification for these arrests and the activists should be released immediately."
Ugandan police have said they were enforcing social distancing rules which included a ban on public gatherings of 10 or more people at that time.
"If the house was targeted because it was a shelter for LGBT - we still have offences of unnatural sex in our law books - we would have charged them with that law but we didn't," said Patrick Onyango, deputy police spokesman.
Scores of people were arrested last year in raids on a gay-friendly bar and office in Uganda, where gay sex carries a possible life sentence.
DISTURBING GOD'S ORDER
COVID-19 has also increased anti-gay rhetoric from religious leaders who regard the virus as a punishment sent by God for the sin of homosexuality.
"Our governments are wicked, disturbing Gods order by allowing and legalising same sex marriages, and homosexuality," Oscar Peter Bougardt, a Cape Town pastor said on Facebook.
South Africa is the only African nation to legalise gay marriage.
"This pestilence called Covid 19 aka Caronavirus is the wrath of God upon this wicked world," wrote Bougardt, who has previously faced legal action for anti-gay hate speech.
The Ghana Muslim Mission said in a statement on COVID-19 that it was important to acknowledge sins "especially the most abominable acts such as homosexuality, lesbianism, transgender, destruction of water bodies and forests".
The World Health Organization, which is leading the global fight against the outbreak, has called for an end to misinformation, warning it fuels stigma and discrimination.
The physical and mental health of vulnerable LGBT+ people is a key concern for rights groups as numerous African countries have introduced restrictions to halt the spread of the virus, including curfews and lockdowns.
Many people living with HIV/AIDS have been unable to get to clinics to collect their medicines while penniless waiters, artists and informal sector workers have been forced to live with abusive families or partners, say campaigners.
"They are suffering a lot of homophobic and transphobic stress due to family members," said Mugisha of SMUG, which is providing counselling and tips to help LGBT+ people survive lockdown by being helpful, blending in and ignoring insults.
"They are forced to stay with them in very difficult and hostile circumstances."
The apparent suicide of a gay Ugandan refugee outside the Nairobi offices of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) on Monday highlighted LGBT+ refugees' need for support, with estimates of more than 750 LGBT+ refugees in Kenya.
Scores live in the remote northern Kakuma refugee camp where they face physical attacks, while others stay in urban areas where they struggle to find work and are often evicted by homophobic landlords and community members.
Police are investigating the death, but those who knew the deceased said the man had no money, and the frustration of waiting to be resettled in a safer country and restrictions linked to the pandemic may have worsened his mental health.
"He was upset. His monthly financial assistance from UNHCR had stopped two months ago and he was depressed about the fact that he had not got resettlement," said Mbazira Moses from Refugee Flag Kakuma, a LGBT+ refugee group.
"The coronavirus made things worse. He wasn't able to move around find work as transport costs have gone up, and there was no hope of immediate resettlement as there is freeze on processing asylum applications ... this depressed him."
UNHCR said in a statement that it was cooperating with police investigators and would do all it could to support refugees during the pandemic.
"UNHCR is concerned about the growing challenges faced by refugees and asylum-seekers as well as communities hosting them, in meeting their basic needs in the current difficult context," said Fathiaa Abdalla, UNHCR representative in Kenya.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and Alice McCool. Writing by Nita Bhalla. Additional reporting by Kim Harrisberg and Vincent Desmond. Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
((firstname.lastname@example.org; +254 798188824; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.