Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 10, 2014, at 10:52 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — As a child, Nicholas Opiyo would walk miles from his home in northern rural Uganda to sleep in town every night. They called kids like him "night commuters," a generation of children who would walk miles each night to avoid being abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army and forced into its ranks. The rebel group was fighting a fierce battle against the government of President Yoweri Museveni in the 1980s and 1990s and was infamous for its use of child soldiers.
Today, Opiyo is 34 and riding one of his biggest wins as one of Uganda's top human rights lawyers. Late last month, he and a team of lawyers won a case in Uganda's Constitutional Court, striking down the country's Anti-Homosexuality Act, which called for up to a lifetime in prison for those convicted of homosexuality.
Days later he won another high-profile case, getting the Constitutional Court to block Museveni's reappointment of the chief judge after he had exceeded the mandatory retirement age. He has now argued more than six cases before the Constitutional Court.
Taking these cases has come at some cost. In March, Opiyo was ousted as general secretary of the Uganda Law Society, when the country's Christian Lawyers Fraternity campaigned against his leadership because of his challenge to the anti-LGBT law. His Facebook wall has filled with insults, he said in an interview during a recent visit to Washington, and he says even his own 25-year-old nephew has called him "retarded" for taking the case.
But Opiyo sees taking that abuse as part of his job as one of the most high-profile human rights attorneys in Uganda. He has specialized in not only working on some of Uganda's most politically sensitive cases, but in defending people who have run afoul of authorities with no means to fight back.
"That is in no way near the pain that the members of the [LGBT] community suffered," Opiyo said of the abuse. "I am a public figure. I can withstand all of that. For me, I'm OK."
Fighting these kinds of fights is why he became a lawyer in the first place.
Opiyo grew up on the outskirts of Gulu, the capital of a northern district that was a center of fighting between Museveni's government and the LRA, a rebel group that had its roots in an extremist brand of Christianity but became increasingly devoted to raw terror under the leadership of Joseph Kony. Sleeping in Gulu wasn't an iron-clad guarantee of a safe night — the LRA overtook the town from time to time — but government forces were largely able to keep the rebels out of the heart of the city.
So, from the time he was around 8 until he was 14 or 15, Opiyo would walk 4 to 10 kilometers to sleep, often choosing a church compound in the city center. If the church was full by the time he arrived, he would sleep on the stoops of shops around town. Sometimes he would sleep alongside some of his six full siblings, and once in a while near his mother, who was the last of his father's three wives.
"I lived this injustice — I saw it," Opiyo said. His career path was set, he said, when he saw his father arrested by government soldiers in an operation to ferret out LRA collaborators within the town. The soldiers rounded up all the men over 18 and herded them into a dilapidated stadium, where they were held for days without food or adequate clothing. Through a crack in the stadium wall, Opiyo watched as his father was beaten and paraded before captured rebels who were supposed to identify those they'd worked with. Those men were then loaded into trucks and taken away. Sometimes Opiyo's father would talk to him and his siblings through the crack, but he tried to shield them from the danger he was in.
"He didn't want to explain to us the details," Opiyo said.
His father was released after three days, but the terror and humiliation of the incident stayed with Opiyo throughout his education, which his parents — both teachers — ensured he continued throughout the civil war.
"I saw terrible things happening to my family, and I said no."
Opiyo first thought he'd be a journalist so he could get the word out about abuses like the ones that had befallen his family. This was in part because the BBC played a key part in his education. From the age of 6, he would listen to the BBC program Focus on Africa every night with his father, who would then leave the room when the 8 o'clock news began. Opiyo's job was to report to his father the events of the day when he came back.
This was part of his father's way to teach Opiyo English — his mother tongue is the local language, Acholi. But it also gave him an interest in public affairs, and a pride at being engaged in world events.
"I used to be the guy in school to break the big news to the headmaster," said Opiyo, who swings from principled argument to cracking jokes in a single sentence. He especially recalled bringing in word that the first African had been elected secretary general of United Nations when Egypt's Boutros Boutros Ghali was selected in 1992.
He got his basic education in rustic private schools, where he also would sleep on the floor at night. He didn't reach the big city until he was 20, when he headed to the capital Kampala to attend Uganda Christian University. This was his first taste of relative stability, since Kampala was somewhat insulated from the armed conflict that continued to percolate throughout the country. But it was also a culture shock. It was the first time he'd encountered a flush toilet.
Though he had started writing for newspapers while still in high school, Opiyo decided to study law, in part because he was inspired by his cousin, Norbert Mao, who had entered politics after practicing law and now heads one of Uganda's opposition parties.
"First I wanted to be a journalist so I could speak about [mistreatment]," Opiyo said. "But I thought … I can go to court and change things."
He focused on human rights in university, and, after he finished law school, found a job as an interpreter for the International Criminal Court's investigation into war crimes committed during the LRA war. He then became an investigator with an organization called the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, monitoring police abuse.
He took up cases on the side. The ones that stand out in his mind are those in which people found themselves locked up without any way to challenge their detention. In one instance in 2008, he came upon a woman in tears in a jail because her father, a local official, had been arrested for forging a document just a week after his wife had died. He tried to offer her help, but she thought he was trying to pick her up and brushed him off. But he left her his card.
"I think she realized much later … you cannot get a girlfriend in a police station in a crying state," Opiyo said, now laughing. "It's the wrong place to get a girlfriend."
After he was able to secure the man's release, he thought the business was done and he was preparing to move onto another case. But the next day the whole family turned up at his office with gifts: chickens, cooked bananas, a flask (though Opiyo is a teetotaler). Another time a man whom he'd gotten out of prison after a year and a half being held without charge offered him his daughter in marriage.
Opiyo's first constitutional case began in 2006. At the end of the legislative session, the government made payments to lawmakers — and several civil society groups contend was those payments were an attempt to buy their votes. Opiyo was part of the legal team that sued on their behalf. They lost, but, he said, he was satisfied that "the point had been made."
He later was part of legal teams that took on the ruling party in other cases. He helped sue to stop elections because the voter rolls were "full of irregularities." Earlier this year he helped successfully challenge the ruling party's attempt to expel four members who had become known as the "Rebel MPs" because they openly broke with party leadership over several issues.
When a group of LGBT people, opposition politicians, and human rights advocates came together earlier this year to challenge the Anti-Homosexuality Act, signed into law by Museveni in February, Opiyo joined as a petitioner and was one of the six lawyers working on the case. He had taken up some cases over the years on behalf of LGBT people, and he had earned the trust of the community. He was also the general secretary of the Uganda Lawy Society at the time — his involvement in the case ultimately cost him his leadership post — and he'd sought the position in the hopes of prodding the group to be a clear voice in support of human rights.
Opiyo took the lead on one of the least profound questions in the case — but it turned out to be the key to victory. While other lawyers focused on the way the Anti-Homosexuality Act violated rights protected by the Ugandan constitution, Opiyo made the case that the law was invalid for procedural reasons: There were not enough members of Parliament present when they voted on the bill in December to meet the Parliament's requirements for conducting official business, and so the court had no choice but to invalidate the law.
Some other members of the team, Opiyo said, weren't even sure they should include this point in their arguments at all — they thought the court was unlikely to take it seriously. But in the end, it was the only point they argued before the Constitutional Court. The court agreed with Opiyo's argument, and dismissed the law on Aug. 1 without ever considering the constitutional questions.
The case is not over, however. On Friday, Uganda's attorney general filed notice to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. Even if they sustain the ruling, the issue could soon be back before the courts. A group of lawmakers are collecting signatures to force a quick re-vote on the Anti-Homosexuality Act with the necessary number of lawmakers present.
Opiyo, who now runs an organization models on the American Civil Liberties Union called Chapter 4, is also working on several other high-profile cases: suits against new laws restricting freedom of assembly and the press, as well as a challenge to an Anti-Pornography Act passed the day before as the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which became known as the "mini-skirt law" because of its sweeping definition of things deemed too sexually explicit.
Opiyo, who came to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leadership Summit organized by the White House last week, said he has no worry about returning to Uganda even after having helped defeat the Museveni regime in several high-profile cases.
Even in Uganda — where elections are dubious and the ruling party shuts down media outlets when it doesn't like what they publish — "the legal profession still has a fairly good level of independence," Opiyo said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 3, 2014, at 3:52 p.m. ET
The Obama administration has delayed action in adjusting aid to Uganda in response to passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, even though an interagency review process put forward recommendations some weeks ago.
Sources familiar with the review process, which the administration announced just after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-gay bill into law in February, told BuzzFeed they have expected an announcement from the United States government for some time because the recommendations were pending, but the White House has been silent.
This inaction follows a seemingly contradictory series of announcements in March. The White House announced an adjustment of around $10 million — including a cut to a religious organization that vocally supported the law — out of the more than $700 million that the U.S. gives to Uganda annually on March 23 because of the new law. But days later, the U.S. embassy in Kampala issued a press release saying "No Changes in U.S. Assistance to Uganda." And the initial cuts were announced on the same night as the administration said it would send military helicopters much coveted by President Museveni to assist in the hunt for rebel leader Joseph Kony.
As the review has dragged on, American LGBT and public health advocates have grown increasingly frustrated by the White House, which they say has frozen them out of consultations over responding to the law. The administration has increasingly held back details on what options are under consideration and when they might come.
"They haven't been telling us anything concrete," one told BuzzFeed.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin publicly called out President Obama for his inaction in a letter that said the "delay is putting lives at risk."
"More than three months since the enactment of this law, I respectfully ask
that you direct the Administration's interagency review to begin issuing immediate, concrete results that will illustrate the United States's commitment to protecting human rights in Uganda," Griffin wrote. "President Museveni must understand that there will be continuing and long term political and economic consequences to state-driven homophobia."
Griffin also called for expanding the review to include other countries that have recently enacted "heinous anti-LGBT laws" — Nigeria, Russia, and Brunei — in order to "signal to the world that these consequences are not directed solely towards Africa."
National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell would not comment on why the administration had not made a final decision on the recommendations from the interagency review process. However, he avoided referencing the review in a statement responding to the Human Rights Campaign's letter.
"In response to President Museveni's decision to assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the United States took immediate steps to demonstrate our support for the LGBT community in Uganda, deter other countries from enacting similar laws, and reinforce our commitment to the promotion and defense of human rights for all people – including LGBT individuals," Ventrell wrote. "As we move forward, we will take additional steps to demonstrate our opposition to the Act and our support for LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world—recognizing that the struggle to end discrimination against LGBT persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 5, 2014, at 8:51 a.m. ET
KAMPALA, Uganda — With one of the world's most infamous anti-gay laws, Uganda seems like the last place on Earth an LGBTI person would go seeking safety. But almost 100 LGBTI refugees have sought help from an NGO in Uganda's capital to seek asylum in the country, and there may be many more in the country illegally without seeking formal permission to stay.
Many of them have come during the five years Uganda have been debating its Anti-Homosexuality Act, which originally proposed a death sentence for homosexuality. If they're crossing the border, you can be sure the situations in their home countries are "quite worse than Uganda," said David, who works for an NGO in Kampala that assists LGBTI asylum-seekers. David asked that his real name not be used out of fear for his safety; one of his colleagues was beaten in a supermarket last year over his LGBTI work. He also asked that the organization he works for not be identified out of concern that it could be shut down by the Ugandan government, since the version of the law enacted in February essentially bans LGBTI advocacy as well as imposing up to a lifetime prison sentence for homosexuality.
"There is a common saying, 'If you see a rat running from a bush into a hut that is burning, that means it could be hotter in the bush,'" David said. Some people in neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi are fleeing situations that are so bad that they make Uganda seem safe.
One of these asylum-seekers is a trans man from Rwanda who asked to be identified as Green, because of his love of trees. "I like to be near trees," he said during an interview in Kampala. "They don't have hate, they don't reject me, and if I tell them [secrets], they won't tell everybody."
Green arrived in Kampala four years ago, still recovering from a police beating at his home in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, that was so severe he walks with a crutch to this day. Green grew up largely on the streets after his father turned his back on him when he was a very small child, but he managed to continue his education all the way through university, determined to be an activist for children's rights and the rights of the disabled.
According to Green's account, police showed up at his house a few months after he graduated, accompanied by a neighborhood official, who accused him of recruiting girls into homosexuality even though Rwanda has no law against same-sex intercourse.
"You're a lesbian," Green said the police asserted. "You are teaching people [lesbianism] since your childhood."
When Green denied the accusation, the police officers beat him until he lost consciousness. He ultimately escaped that day, but they hunted him down a few days later and brought him to jail. By twist of fate, one of his former schoolmates was a police officer at the jail, and she arranged for him to escape when he was let out of his cell to go to the bathroom. If he did not flee, the schoolmate warned, he would be sent to the main prison or, more likely, killed.
Green's relatives helped him sneak across the Ugandan border without papers. He made it to the capital, Kampala, and found a place to live. But then, in 2012, his neighbor began threatening to rape and kill him, he said. Green said he managed to fight off the neighbor the first few times he tried to deliver on his threat, but late one November night the neighbor forced his way into the apartment and raped him. As the neighbor left, he described his plan to to kill Green: The next time he would cover himself with HIV-infected blood before raping Green again so that he would contract the virus.
Going to the police was out of the question. Green's short-term asylum status had expired, and he had given up on seeking permanent refugee status because the process was too humiliating and risky — his masculine appearance was in conflict with his female legal name. He couldn't flee to another country because he had no papers and little money. He thought about killing himself.
"I was here in Uganda, but I was in a prison. ... I was not able to open my door at any time," Green said.
After a period of homelessness, he eventually managed to find a new place to stay, far from the rapist neighbor. But now, it is becoming less safe by the day. When he walks down the street, Green says people call him "Obama" — Obama has become a derogatory word for people who support LGBTI rights.
"I think every [day] I can be arrested again or killed," Green said. "There is no life" for him in Uganda, he said.
Surprisingly, LGBTI people could easily register as asylum-seekers with the Ugandan government before the law became law in February. David, the NGO employee, said he knew of at least four cases in the past year in which his clients had even declared they were seeking asylum because of sexual orientation-based persecution and had their petitions granted by the office of the prime minister's office, which reviews asylum claims.
Most of David's clients come from Congo, but also countries like Rwanda and Burundi. Many come from places where homosexuality isn't technically criminalized, but where they still sometimes face assault and police abuse under the authority of "morality" or "decency" laws. Before the end of 2013, David's organization handling 60 cases of LGBTI asylum-seekers and it added 30 more in the first months of 2014, mostly people who were already in the country but were now seeking legal help fearing the Anti-Homosexuality Act.
The new law has made the formal asylum process extremely risky for LGBTI people, even those who are applying for refugee status for other reasons. Under Ugandan law, asylum-seekers must begin the process of applying for permission to stay in the country by reporting to the Ugandan police. Walking into a police station "is like going into the lion's den" for LGBTI people, said David, because the Anti-Homosexuality Act seems to have given police carte blanche to arrest people suspected of being gay or "promoting homosexuality."
In March, police showed just how far they are prepared to take this authority. They raided an HIV center run by the United States Military HIV Program in partnership with Uganda's Makerere Univeristy, after an undercover investigation lasting several weeks into allegations that the initiative was "carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sexual acts." The undercover officers filed a report saying the center was collecting "sperms" from participants, and that men and boys between the ages of 15-25 were "a pornographic film as a teaching package for homosexual[s]." One staff member was arrested, and several patients in the clinic at the time of the raid reportedly were photographed by police.
Gay men and lesbians who feel they could conceal their sexual orientation might decide to chance it, David said, but it's a risk that's completely out of the question for transgender or intersex people whose status is harder to hide. "With the new law, it's something you just can't try," David said.
Most of the asylum-seekers who seek help from David's organization have gone underground since the law passed. A support group for the community has stopped meeting out of fear for participants' safety. At least one client was killed by a mob, David said, and others have been beaten. Some have just disappeared — they've stopped coming to the organization's office and their phones have stopped working. They now live with very little legal protection and almost no support network, leaving them especially vulnerable to anti-LGBTI harassment in daily life, which has increased for all LGBTI people in Uganda.
Not being able to safely petition for refugee status makes it very hard for LGBTI asylum-seekers to get somewhere safer. The United States, Australia, and some other Western countries will accept some refugees who can't safely stay in the country where they first take refuge, but only after they have been granted refugee status there. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can sometimes use its powers to grant refugee status to individuals even if the country where they seek asylum doesn't accept their claims, but it ordinarily doesn't do that until after an asylum-seeker has been formally rejected by the government.
This leaves people like Green, the Rwandan trans man, feeling trapped.
Green was with a friend who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in February when he learned that Museveni had signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. He turned to his friend and said, "Now we are going to die."