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Uganda's anti-gay law ruled 'null and void.' Now what?

Members of Uganda's gay community and gay rights activists react as the constitutional court overturns anti-gay laws in Kampala on August 1, 2014.
Members of Uganda's gay community and gay rights activists react as the constitutional court overturns anti-gay laws in Kampala on August 1, 2014.
(ISAAC KASAMANI/Getty)

Uganda's infamous Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was signed into law earlier this year, is now "null and void," according to Uganda's Constitutional Court.

Friday's decision was made by a panel of five judges, who ruled that Uganda's Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga "acted illegally," the Associated Press reports, by allowing the bill to be voted on despite lacking a quorum - the minimum number of required members for a vote.

The bill has been consistently and harshly criticized by Western nations since its introduction by Member of Parliament David Bahati in October 2009. An original version of the legislation called for the death penalty for those found to have engaged in "aggravated homosexuality." The death-penalty language was replaced with life imprisonment in the final version of the bill, which President Yoweri Museveni signed into law on February 24, 2014.

Maria Burnett, a senior researcher in the Human Rights Watch's Africa Division, said in a written statement that Friday's decision was a "critical step forward" for LGBT rights. "We are pleased that this law cannot be enforced and entrench further abuses and discrimination."  Neela Ghoshal, another senior researcher with the HRW, tells Vox that the LGBTI community in East Africa is currently "breathing a huge sigh of relief" because of Friday's rulings. "That law has cast a shadow over every LGBTI activist and ordinary person's lives in Uganda and the wider region for the past six months. Now, there's a sense a space for LGBTI people has opened up."

But while there are many reasons to celebrate Friday's ruling, Ghoshal and Burnett note there is still much work to be done in Uganda when it comes to human rights abuses (for instance, colonial-era anti-sodomy laws remain on the books there). The judges' ruling may just be a "temporary respite," Ghoshal says. "The law was nullified on procedural grounds and could be presented again in Parliament, and passed in a [legal] way." Martin Ssempa, antigay Ugandan minister and the infamous "poo poo pastor," said as much on Twitter after the ruling was announced.

Still, there's optimism among activists that things will continue to change for the better for gay Ugandans. "There's a sense that there's a bit of hope that the situation may not continue to deteriorate for LGBTI people in this region," Ghoshal says.