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By Alice McCool
KAMPALA, March 31 (Openly) - Ugandan police charged 20 LGBT+ people with disobeying rules on social distancing and risking the spread of coronavirus on Tuesday, drawing criticism from campaigners who said they were using the restrictions to target sexual minorities.
Gay sex carries a possible life sentence in Uganda, one of the most difficult countries in Africa to be a sexual minority.
The 14 gay men, two bisexual men and four transgender women were taken into custody on Sunday when police raided a shelter on the outskirts of the capital Kampala.
Police said they were disobeying coronavirus-related restrictions on social distancing by "congesting in a school-like-dormitory setting within a small house" despite a ban on gatherings of more than 10, which has now been reduced to five.
Deputy Police Spokesperson Patrick Onyango denied allegations made by LGBT+ campaigners that they were targeted because of their sexual orientation.
"We still have offences of unnatural sex in our law books," Onyango told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We would charge them with that law, but we are charging them with those counts as you can see."
Onyango said there were two charges against the group - disobediance of lawful order and committing neglectful acts likely to spread infection of disease. The charges carry a maximum of two and seven years imprisonment respectively.
Although 23 people were arrested initially, three people were released without charges on medical grounds. The group are now on remand and will appear in court on 29 April 29, he added.
LGBT+ campaigners in Uganda say members of the community risk physical attacks in their daily life and routinely encounter harassment, as well as facing prejudice over work, housing and health care.
"They are always using alternative charges to arrest people for unnatural offences so it (coronavirus) just worked perfectly for them," said Patricia Kimera, a lawyer with Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, defending the group.
"But definitely the reason they have been arrested is their sexual orientation."
In October last year, a minister proposed introducing the death penalty for gay sex. The government denied it had any plans to do so after condemnation from international donors.
Attacks on LGBT+ people rose after the minister's comments, including the arrest of 16 LGBT+ activists from their office and residence, and a raid on Ram Bar, a gay-friendly bar, which led to the arrest of 67 people.
Uganda announced its first coronavirus case on March 21 and now has 33 confirmed cases.
(Reporting by Alice McCool. Editing by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and Claire Cozens. 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)
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
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