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Ugandan court strikes down tough antigay law

NAIROBI — A Ugandan court on Friday struck down an antigay law that has strained Uganda’s relations with the West, but the court ruled on narrow technical grounds, preserving the possibility that the measure could be revived.

In front of an overflowing courtroom in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, a panel of five judges announced that the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which punishes some homosexual behavior with life in prison, was invalid because it had been passed by Parliament without a proper quorum.

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“We’re very happy,” said Sylvia Tamale, a Ugandan law professor who has supported gay rights despite persistent threats and harassment. “But it’s unfortunate that the court did not deal with the substantive issues that violate our rights.”

Uganda’s government, which is tightly controlled by President Yoweri Museveni, a former guerrilla fighter who has ruled for 28 years, did not immediately indicate if it would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Legislators might try to introduce new antigay measures to overcome the quorum. Also, a colonial-era law that criminalizes sex acts ‘‘against the order of nature’’ still remains in effect, which could allow for continued arrests.

Even though the judges enjoy a reputation of being somewhat independent from Museveni, they avoided taking a stand on gay rights and chose to nullify the law in such a way that Parliament could pass it again.

Museveni has supported the antigay measure despite international outcry and cuts in aid from several Western governments, and he may try to resurrect the law. He has called gays “mercenaries” and said they are more likely to get sexually transmitted diseases.

Some Ugandan legal scholars hoped Museveni would use the court’s ruling as convenient cover and drop what has become a diplomatic headache for him.

Museveni is scheduled to lead Uganda’s delegation at a meeting of African leaders to be hosted by President Obama in Washington next week. Nearly 50 leaders were to attend the three-day conference on ways to boost US business investment in Africa, improve regional security, and support the next generation of African leaders.

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