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Ugandan Gay Activist, Former NPR Guest, Killed


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, in "Faith Matters," we'll touch on two stories that speak to questions of faith and politics and policy. In a few minutes, we'll talk about the Alabama governor and some remarks he made about his faith. Were his comments impolitic, impolite or just honest? We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But first to Uganda, where prominent gay rights and human rights activist David Kato was killed on Wednesday at his home in the capital city, Kampala. Kato was once a guest on this program. He became internationally known when a tabloid newspaper published pictures of him and several other people that the newspaper said were gay, and accompanied those pictures with the words: Hang them.

In Uganda, homosexuality is illegal. And in 2009, the Ugandan parliament was debating a bill that would impose the death penalty on those found to repeatedly engage in homosexual behavior in a couple of other categories. And the bill was introduced not long after a couple of American Christian leaders spoke at an anti-gay conference in the capital.

When we spoke with Kato in November 2009, he talked about the context of that bill, and what he thinks sparked it.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Mr. DAVID KATO (Gay Rights and Human Rights Activist): In my view, it's the religious rights; these were from America. They came here and - saying that if they leave homosexuals to be around, they are spoiling what they call the traditional marriage. So they came up saying that we gay people are recruiting children into homosexuality. So they started lobbying the parliament, lobbying all the societies; they put up a task force. So from that time, they pushed hate into everyone, to be against anything to do with LGBTI community.

MARTIN: Once again, that was David Kato - was speaking with us in November of 2009. We wanted to learn about this story so we've called upon Jeffrey Gettleman. He's with the New York Times; he's reported on this for the New York Times. He's the East Africa bureau chief for the paper. And he's with us now from Nairobi. Thanks so much for joining us once again, Jeffrey.

Mr. JEFFREY GETTLEMAN (East Africa Bureau Chief, New York Times): No problem.

MARTIN: Do we know any more about the circumstances around the killing of David Kato?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, the police were very quick to chalk this up to a robbery. They said that he lived in a rough neighborhood; there had been a number of incidents similar to this and that the assailants who attacked him, robbed him and then fled. However, David's friends thought that was totally ridiculous, and that he had been singled out and killed because he was one of the most visible and prominent gay rights defenders in the country.

MARTIN: And is there any evidence to support the other view, that - the view of human rights activists, certainly not just his friends, but human rights activists around the world are talking about this murder. We've received communications from literally, all over the world about this. What evidence did they have? Is it the context of it, that we've been talking about here?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, it's a few things. Number one, he had felt that he was under threat. And he had told his friends that he had received death threats. He was being very careful about his movements. So he obviously felt somebody was trying to kill him - or could kill him - because of his views.

There's also this question about the robbery. Why would somebody need to kill him to rob him? That's what his friends were saying. If somebody had broken into his house and demanded to hand over property or for him to give up his money, they say he would have done it. He wouldn't have resisted. So, it just doesn't totally make sense to people who know him to think that he was killed -beaten to death with a hammer - over something that he owned.

MARTIN: Now, there was a statement, as we mentioned, by the president of the United States in the killing of David Kato. It was issued last night. He says: I'm deeply saddened to learn of the murder of David Kato in Uganda. David showed tremendous courage in speaking out against hate. He was a powerful advocate for fairness and freedom. The United States mourns his murder, and we recommit ourselves to David's work.

The statement goes on: We'll post it on our website.

Why do you think - I'm not asking you to speak for the president; I'm interested in how you think those words will be received in Uganda.

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, this issue has really captivated attention around the world. This started last year - or the year - before when the Ugandan government proposed executing gay people. And to many people living in the West, that seemed like, you know, the most draconian idea in the world.

But in Uganda, a lot of people support it; it's not just a fringe element. People feel - many people feel that there is a gay menace, and that people who are gay are going to kidnap their children and turn them into people who are also gay. And that sounds ridiculous to us. But in Uganda, many people firmly believe that.

So David and a few others were speaking out against that, at great risk to their life - because their own government was suggesting killing them.

MARTIN: This has also been a big story in the United States, of course, because of the participation of a group of American evangelicals whom we also interviewed on this program - one, in particular, named Scott Lively, who many human rights activists have said helped to create this context of intolerance. Do you think that that's true? Do you think the American evangelicals' visit there was really that influential? Do you think that that's true? Do you think the American evangelicals' visit there was really that influential?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: I do think it was influential. I think a lot of people in Uganda, and the part of Africa where I live - in Kenya - and most of this continent and probably most of this world, there's many people who are homophobic. But it didn't take a violent form. It was - people thought that - in Uganda, people thought gay people were strange, that they were outliers. But they weren't really fired up to do anything about it.

It was only after the visits by these Americans, who billed themselves as experts in dealing with homosexual issues, that the Ugandan politicians and church groups got really angry about it and suggested killing gay people.

MARTIN: We also have a statement from Scott Lively. He says, again, that he cautions the media and gay activists in assuming that Kato's murder was a hate crime. And he offers his perspective on that.

So Jeffrey Gettleman, a final thought from you. Is the investigation ongoing, or do the police consider this a settled matter at this stage? And also, if you would, bring us up to date on that legislation that got so much attention, that would punish certain categories of homosexual conduct by death. Is that going forward as well?

Mr. GETTLEMAN: OK. So, the bill is still alive, and a lot of people think it might be passed after this election in February - parliamentary and presidential election - that everybody expects will return the ruling party to power. So the bill still could be passed even though for a while, it looked like it might be scrapped because of all the international outrage.

Now, as far as the investigation, it sounds like the police have a lot of pressure on them by the foreign donors to take this seriously, but they immediately said it was a robbery. They've already arrested one person, are looking for another - and they say they don't consider it a hate crime.

MARTIN: Jeffrey Gettleman has reported on the death of Ugandan human rights and gay rights activist David Kato for the New York Times. He's the East Africa bureau chief for The Times, and he was kind enough to join us from his office in Nairobi. Jeffrey, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. GETTLEMAN: Glad to help. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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