Ugandan prosecutors have lodged charges of “aggravated homosexuality” against a 20-year-old man — a crime punishable by death — in one of the country’s first applications of a provision included in one of the world’s harshest antigay laws.
Same-sex acts had long been considered illegal under Uganda’s penal code, but a law enacted this year introduced far harsher penalties and vastly extended the range of perceived offenses. Its passage drew condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations, and the Biden administration called it “one of the most extreme” antigay measures in the world.
The measure, signed into law in May, called for life in prison for anyone who engaged in gay sex and allowed the death penalty for what it labeled “aggravated homosexuality.” That category included same-sex relations with disabled people, who were defined very broadly.
Prosecutors used the death penalty provision this month to charge a 20-year-old man with having sexual intercourse with a 41-year-old man with a disability in the city of Soroti, in Eastern Uganda, according to Jacquelyn Okui, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution. (A separate case against a different man, lodged last month, involved an underage person, Ms. Okui said.)
In Uganda, a conservative, mostly Christian country, many religious leaders and politicians have painted same-sex relations as a Western import. “Africans are being used to accept this nonsense of the Western world, and homosexuality is on the agenda,” James Nsaba Buturo, a former minister of ethics and integrity in the Ugandan government, said in March.
Antigay behavior took a particularly severe turn in Uganda over the past year, with authorities removing rainbow colors from a park and parents charging into a school because they thought a gay person taught there.
Justine Balya, a director at the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, said the new law, and the draconian punishments it outlines, had intimidated gay Ugandans.
Her organization, which is representing the 20-year-old, has reported that overall violence and abuse against L.G.B.T.Q. people have increased since the law’s passage: Fifty-three people have been evicted from rented property for reasons linked to their sexual orientation or gender identity, 47 have faced violence or threats of violence and 17 have been arrested on various charges related to sexuality or gender identity.
Frank Mugisha, a prominent gay-rights activist in Uganda, said that many others feared they would lose their jobs or were afraid to visit public places for fear of being attacked or arrested. Some began fleeing the country earlier, as the law made its way through Parliament.
“It has been a brutal three months for the community in Uganda,” said Ms. Balya, who argued that the law was unconstitutional.
Uganda has not had an execution in about 20 years, Ms. Balya said — the death penalty usually winds up as life imprisonment — but advocates say that the harsh legal climate has put L.G.B.T.Q. people in even more danger.
“People are freaking out,” Mr. Mugisha said, adding that many gay or lesbian Ugandans feared they could be arrested at any time and that he worried about an increase in blackmail as a result.
“This law is creating a witch hunt,” he said.
The antigay effort in Uganda drew support from local Christian and Muslim groups along with the financial and logistical backing of conservative evangelical groups in the United States. Politicians insisted that homosexuality was undermining Ugandan stability and putting children at risk.
Even before the latest law, the Ugandan authorities stopped people suspected of being gay on what rights groups said were fabricated pretexts. As early as 2009, a Ugandan politician introduced a bill that threatened to hang gay people. Western countries exhorted Uganda to halt the crackdown and threatened to cut aid to the country.
But the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed the 2023 law in May.
A handful of countries around the world had already imposed the death penalty for gay sex, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and same-sex conduct is a crime in more than 60 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, according to a survey by Human Rights Watch.
The Ugandan crackdown comes at a time when other African nations are facing the rise of similarly antigay policies and behavior.
Mr. Mugisha, the gay-rights activist, said that the prosecutions in Uganda might energize these countries to pass the laws.
“They will see the law works,” he said. “They will want to do the same.”