By Heather Doyle
I first had the opportunity to meet David Kato three years ago when he and another colleague from the gay rights organization Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) flew from Uganda to Kenya to help us understand better the human rights situation in the country. David came to the meeting with his arm in a homemade sling after he was beaten by an angry mob who accused him of immorality because he was gay. After the attacks, he continued his human rights work with serious personal sacrifice.
Yesterday, David was was found murdered in his home, apparently bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Human rights groups around the world are calling on the police to promptly and effectively investigate the murder.
This devastating news comes only weeks after David won an important victory for lesbians and gays in Uganda. Late last year, a local tabloid called Rolling Stone (no connection to the U.S. magazine) published David’s picture and name, along with other lesbian, gay, or transgender individuals, with the headline “Hang Them.” David, along with two other activists, sued the publication for violating their right to privacy. They won the case on January 3. In addition to ordering compensation for the activists, the judge issued an injunction prohibiting any further publication of the identities and home locations of individuals labeled “homosexuals.”
Times have been increasingly precarious for sexual minorities in Uganda. In 2009 a sweeping piece of legislation was introduced before the Ugandan parliament which would make homosexuality—already an illegal offense—punishable by life imprisonment. “Repeat offenders” and those who are HIV positive would be subject to the death penalty. In his role as SMUG’s advocacy officer, David worked to advocate against the bill and to bring mainstream human rights voices into the fight to recognize the gross human rights violations that the legislation would legalize.
David used his life to call for a more humane and safe world, where human rights are respected. Whether he died as a consequence of his work will likely remain undetermined—the police have little motivation to identify this vicious attack as a hate crime. What is clear, however, is that the Ugandan government has created an environment of intolerance that puts the lives of human rights activists at extreme vulnerability. David’s death is a tragedy, but we must ensure his life’s work was not in vain.