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Uganda president: "Go slow" on anti-gay bill

President Yoweri Museveni urges caution on controversial bill saying it is a foreign policy matter.

Gay rights activists protest Uganda's "Anti-Homosexuality Bill" outside Uganda House in Trafalgar Square, London, Dec. 10, 2009. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni distanced himself from the controversial legislation citing international pressure. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

KAMPALA, Uganda — After weeks of mounting domestic and international concern over the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” currently before the Ugandan parliament, President Yoweri Museveni finally issued his view on the legislation: “Go slow.”

Museveni's wary stance toward the bill is expected to call into question its passage through parliament. The controversial bill thrust Uganda into the international spotlight at the center of the global clash over gay rights. 

Museveni, who had been silent about the anti-gay bill since it was proposed in October, distanced himself and his government from the controversial legislation, which calls for the death sentence for some homosexual acts. His remarks to the executive council of his ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, were published in the Ugandan press on Wednesday.

Museveni said he is not behind the bill, which calls for the death penalty for the newly created crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” defined as when one of the participants is HIV positive, a minor or a "serial offender." Homosexual acts are already crimes in Uganda, punishable by up to 14 years in jail. The new legislation would increase the sentence to life imprisonment.

“This issue was not brought by the government, it was not even brought by the party, it was brought by a private member and we have not had time even to discuss with him,” said Museveni.

“It’s not just our internal politics,” said Museveni. “It is a foreign policy issue, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles, but also takes into account our foreign policy interests.” He said the bill would be discussed by his cabinet.

“No, no, no,” shouted several members of parliament in disagreement.

But Museveni continued explaining his reservations about the bill, saying that passage of the anti-gay bill would jeopardize Uganda’s plans to host a conference for the International Criminal Court because many in the international community would view Uganda as a violator of the human rights of gays and lesbians.

Sweden threatened to cut off aid if the bill becomes law and other major Western donors were expected to take similar action. Museveni said that several world leaders had told him of their objections to the bill including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

To further emphasize his point, Museveni told of a gay-sponsored rally in New York City in the 1990s to support then-U.S. President Bill Clinton.

“In that rally, about 300,000 homosexuals attended. I challenge you. Who of you, MPs, has ever had a rally of 300,000 people, other than me? Even for me, it is not often that I get those numbers,” said Museveni.