Johannesburg - Immigration officials tried to deport a Ugandan doctor and LGBTI rights activist on Wednesday, despite a high court ruling the night before ordering that he be released from their custody.
The Department of Home Affairs is appealing the order.
Dr Paul Semugoma has been living in South Africa since 2012.
Twice he has applied for a special skills visa – and twice those applications were allegedly lost by Home Affairs.
The department tells a different story: that Semugoma entered South Africa on a visitor’s visa that has expired.
Though he cannot work as a doctor here without a valid permit, Semugoma volunteers for the Anova Health Institute by monitoring the latest HIV/Aids research.
He’s also openly gay and an outspoken activist on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) issues – especially regarding his home country, where an Anti-Homosexuality Bill was passed in parliament in December.
In the interim, Semugoma has travelled in and out of South Africa about five times on his Ugandan passport and a receipt from the department.
But when he arrived back in the country on Monday from a meeting in Zimbabwe, immigration officials arrested him at OR Tambo International Airport.
On Wednesday, they tried to put him on a 2pm SAA flight to Kampala. This was in spite of a draft order from the Johannesburg High Court on Tuesday that Home Affairs must release Semugoma.
According to the Webber Wentzel legal team representing Semugoma, he should have been released as soon as the order was served.
“When we heard about the court order, there was a major celebration, both here and among activists in Uganda,” said Glenn de Swardt of Anova.
“There was a sense of victory and relief. And then to hear that the department refused to execute a high court order – that was just a crushing blow.”
Semugoma refused to board the SAA flight on Wednesday.
De Swardt, who spoke to him just after 2pm, said Semugoma sounded calm and confirmed that the plane had left without him.
“I asked him ‘what’s going to happen now?’ He said ‘I don’t know’.”
Semugoma’s lawyers said they planned to bring a contempt of court application against the department.
But the department says it wasn’t represented in court and is appealing the decision.
“The suggestion that the Department of Home Affairs sought to ignore the interim court order in this regard is false and must be dismissed,” spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said. “In this context, we appeal to the public to avoid imputing motive and thus communicating falsehoods regarding the reasons for refusing Dr Semugoma entry into South Africa.”
Treatment Action Campaign spokesman Marcus Low said activists were deeply concerned about “the willingness and haste” of the department to deport Semugoma.
“Over the last few years Semugoma has been a very outspoken critic of homophobic laws in Uganda,” said Low. “Given the way in which gay people are being prosecuted right now, we believe he’s in real danger if he returns. He’ll either be imprisoned, or his life will be in danger.”
In 2011, another Ugandan LGBTI activist, David Kato – a friend of Semugoma’s – was murdered. This happened after a tabloid newspaper published Kato’s name, photograph and address, calling for him to be hanged for being gay.
Mark Heywood, executive director of SECTION27, said Semugoma’s treatment made South Africa “complicit in the violence and homophobia of Uganda towards its LGBTI citizens”.
“The failure by the Department of Home Affairs to comply with the court order undermines the independence of the judiciary,” he added.
Bill seeks life in jail
Passed by Parliament on December 20, Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill calls for life imprisonment for “same-sex relations” – or 14 years behind bars if one is a first offender.
And even that is an improvement. The original draft proposed the death penalty for multiple offenders or “aggravated homosexuality”.
The bill has yet to be signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni.
Last week, he said he could not sign it as the bill was passed illegally – but he hasn’t been a friend of the LGBTI population in the past.
Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda.