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Gays and lesbians 'sick,' Ugandan President says in blocking anti-gay bill

updated 11:18 PM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President's spokesman: "There was no quorum, and homosexuals are sick people"
  • Lawmakers downgraded punishment for "aggravated homosexuality" to life in prison
  • Law also proposed prison time for those who counsel, reach out to gays and lesbians
  • Parliament reconvenes next month, and the bill could pass without President's signature

(CNN) -- Uganda's President has declined to sign a bill that would punish certain homosexual acts with life in prison, but the move was not designed to protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

President Yoweri Museveni believes that parliament illegally passed the bill, and gays and lesbians are "sick people who need help," his spokesman said.

A Ugandan lawmaker first introduced the bill in 2009 with a death penalty clause for some homosexual acts. It was briefly shelved when Britain and other European nations threatened to withdraw aid to Uganda, which relies on millions of dollars from the international community.

The nation's parliament passed the bill last month, supplanting the death penalty provision with a proposal of life in prison for "aggravated homosexuality." It was awaiting the President's signature for passage.

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News came Friday that the President had sent a letter to the speaker of the parliament, saying he can't sign the bill because there weren't enough parliament members present when it was passed.

"There was no quorum which (was) mandated for bill passage. Thus, he is unable to sign a bill that was not legally passed," spokesman Tamale Mirundi said.

The spokesman further explained Museveni's thinking about the issue.

"Homosexuals need help. They are sick," Mirundi said. "Homosexuals were present in Africa in the past and were not persecuted."

The President also believes that the issue is not a priority for his country.

"It might be important in Europe, but not here," Mirundi said. "The President's inability to sign the bill is very clear and his stance has not changed. ... There was no quorum, and homosexuals are sick people who need help."

According to Amnesty International, the bill's definition of "aggravated homosexuality" includes acts in which a person is infected with HIV, "serial offenders" and sex with minors.

The bill also proposed years in prison for anyone who counsels or reaches out to gays and lesbians, a provision that would ensnare rights groups and others providing services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Homosexuality is illegal in most African countries, where sodomy laws were introduced during colonialism. In Uganda, homosexual acts are punishable by 14 years to life in prison, according to rights activists.

But lawmakers in the conservative nation sought tougher legislation, saying the influence of Western lifestyles risks destroying family units.

"This is a piece of legislation that is needed in this country to protect the traditional family here in Africa, and also protect the future of our children," said David Bahati, the lawmaker who introduced the bill.

Rights groups and the international community had urged Museveni to veto the bill.

Parliament is in recess and won't reconvene until February 18, parliament spokesman Moses Bwalatum said. The bill can become law without the President's signature if Museveni returns it to parliament twice and it garners the support of two-thirds of lawmakers, he said.

Journalist Samson Ntale and Gregory Branch contributed to this report.

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