Between 16 and 25 people were arrested in Kampala, Uganda just before 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 4th, when police raided a Pride Uganda event celebrating trans and gender-nonconforming residents.
Thursday’s event, a pageant intended to crown Mr./Ms./Mx. Pride Uganda, was one of several planned as part of Uganda’s fifth annual Pride festivities, originally scheduled to continue through the weekend.
After organizers met Friday with Simon Lokodo, the Ugandan minister of ethics and integrity, they announced that a Pride event scheduled Saturday had been cancelled over security concerns. Lokodo reportedly told the activists that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had instructed Lokodo to shut down Pride. The government official then compared the activists to terrorists and promised to arrest anyone who attempted to assemble for Saturday’s event.
At least one person jumped from a high floor of the venue to escape Thursday’s police raid. Despite initial reports indicating that person had died from injuries sustained from the fall, multiple reports have confirmed the person is alive and recovering in the hospital. One report says that the individual is transgender.
Before the police began the violent raid, contestants from Uganda, Congo, Burundi, and other countries strutted the runway cheerfully in creative costumes and makeup. One took a moment to dedicate their outfit to the victims of the June 12 massacre in Orlando, where 49 people, most of whom were LGBT and Latino, died when a gunman opened fire at a gay club called Pulse.
Rev. Jide Macaulay, founder and CEO of House of Rainbow, traveled from his home in London to serve as the Grand Marshall for Uganda Pride 2016, and estimates there were approximately 300 people in attendance at Thursday’s event. Macaulay, who was present at the event and raid but was not arrested, described the pageant atmosphere as “beautiful and electric.”
But the mood quickly changed from joy to terror when police entered the building just before 11:00 PM. Rev. Macaulay tells The Advocate that the police arrested transgender pageant contestants first. He describes:
“Many [of those] arrested attended [the] pride event for the first time, and you can see the terror and fear on people’s faces. The crowd was ushered into a narrow space [and] the police held us in captivity for nearly two hours. I recorded some of the chaos on audio as police shouted at people using their mobile phones — it was a terrifying moment for everyone. We were forced to sit on the floor and several of the police officers in uniform used their mobile phone cameras to take photographs, forcing people to look up. A few who became distressed were crying and throwing themselves on the floor.”
Rev. Macaulay estimates that more than a dozen attendees were physically injured in the raid. Icebreakers Uganda, a lead organizer of Pride Uganda, tweeted that the “police acted like terrorists.” One person called his friend to say goodbye because he thought he was going to die.
Freedom and Roam Uganda, a women’s and LGBT civil rights organization founded by out human rights activist Kasha Jaqueline Nabagesera, managed to tweet one photo from the raid before the group’s phone was confiscated:
Raymond Nsubuga, director of Equality Heals Africa, a human rights organization based in Kampala that serves Uganda’s marginalized communities, was among those arrested. Nsubuga recounts:
“Ugandan police forcefully took photos of people’s faces, forced us to delete our recordings, journalists’ cameras were being confiscated, we were intimated, bullied. Our trans sisters faced body violations as police people touched their breasts and butts apparently determining if they are men or women! It was so painful watching some of our contestants struggling to un-plait their hair, trying to undress their high heels and removing makeup!”
Those arrested included leading LGBTQI activists Frank Mugisha, Pepe Julian Onziema, and Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera. Activists and revelers were detained at Kabalagala Police Station for approximately 90 minutes before being released around 1:20 a.m. local time. Activists were told the event was “unlawful,” but no charges were brought.
Mugisha, who serves as executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, issued a statement with other East African human rights organizations, declaring “any force by Ugandan police targeting a peaceful and lawful assembly is outrageous. The LGBTI community stands with all Ugandan civil society movements against police brutality.”
Several U.S. diplomats and advocacy organizations condemned the raid, which is only the latest in a long history of Ugandan police harassing and arresting LGBT people in the nation where homosexuality is illegal.
“The fact that police reportedly beat and assaulted Ugandan citizens engaged in peaceful activities is unacceptable and deeply troubling,” said U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Deborah R. Malac in a statement Friday.
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT advocacy organization in the U.S., also “strongly condemned” the raid, noting that police disrupted the event moments after revelers had completed their tribute to Orlando.
“The violent raid and arrest of LGBTQ leaders attending a Uganda Pride event is an affront to the universal freedom to peaceably assemble and to the basic dignity of LGBTQ Ugandans,” said HRC President Chad Griffin in a statement Thursday. “Ugandan authorities must stop targeting and persecuting LGBTQ people. The victims of the raid deserve an apology from their government and police force. The world is watching.”
Friday’s Pride events went on as scheduled, including a social corporate responsibility event at a hospital and community outreach giving out condoms. Earlier in the week, an opening ceremony had occurred without incident.
Many of Pride Uganda’s organizers and supporters have stated that they stand prouder and stronger after the attack and will never give up. After telling NBC News that police hurled antigay slurs at him and slapped him in the face before arresting him, Onziema, a Ugandan trans man, awoke resolutely defiant: