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Ugandan police accused of anti-gay bias in murder investigation

LGBTIQ activists allege extortion by police, and say killing of non-binary gay person could be a hate crime

Khatondi Soita Wepukhulu
1 August 2022, 4.55pm
Noah Matthew Kinono via social media

Ugandan police have been accused of homophobic bias and “extortion” following the brutal murder last month of a gay person who had previously been arrested and victimised by the same police force.

On 11 July, Noah Matthew Kinono, a non-binary gay person, was found lying in a pool of blood in their home in Kampala, the capital. Kinono, 27, had been stabbed several times.

Kinono was one of 16 LGBTIQ people arrested in 2019 after a police raid on Let’s Walk Uganda, a Kampala shelter for LGBTIQ youth. Police initially took them into “protective custody” after a mob surrounded the shelter yelling homophobic slurs. However, those arrested were later subjected to anal examinations by the police. They were charged with “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, but released after the charges didn’t stick. 

No one has been charged with Kinono’s murder, and LGBTIQ activists believe it may have been a hate crime. But police are refusing to investigate it as such.

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Instead, cops have arrested and released six people, most of whom are LGBTIQ themselves. They were held for a fortnight without charge, during which time their legal adviser Shawn Mugisha alleges that police outed them to their families.

Mugisha, a community paralegal and co-founder of the Ubuntu Law and Justice Centre, said: “I don’t think police will arrive at the truth by themselves unless they’re put under pressure.”

The Ubuntu centre promotes human rights and access to justice for underprivileged persons.

Mugisha added: “The suspects were in detention for over two weeks and this prolonged detention has been mostly because these people are gay…

“And then there’s been extortion… Each one who has been released has paid at least $105 to the police for bond. One paid $155.” Payment for police bond is not required in Uganda.

Luke Owoyesigire, a spokesperson for Kampala police, did not respond to openDemocracy’s questions about these accusations. But he said: “It is just a plain case of murder and the motive is currently unknown.”

He also claimed that some of the people who were arrested and then released on police bond had reportedly had disagreements with Kinono over money from “European funders”, and that this remains the main line of investigation.

It is a popular homophobic trope that the LGBTIQ ‘lifestyle’ in Uganda is sponsored or supported by Western funders.

But Mugisha said: “Their [wrong] assumption is that Matthew ran an organisation. Where is the evidence that they received such money? What police aren't telling is that the money Matthew received sometimes was from their partner, but the police is just pushing the narrative that they were receiving money from funders abroad.”

No trust in the police

In Uganda, same-sex relations are criminalised under a colonial-era penal code law. A sexual offences law passed last year explicitly bans “a sexual act between persons of the same gender”, and there have been repeated attempts to impose a death penalty for homosexuality

Distrust of the police among the queer community is not new – or unfounded. 

Activists have long expressed concern about the slow action and lack of results from police after the murder of LGBTIQ people

Last year, a 21-year-old-gay man called Yiga Karim – another one of the 16 people arrested at the Let’s Walk Uganda shelter – was found dead in his bed in mysterious circumstances. Activists are still demanding answers from the police. 

Days after the burial of Matthew Kinono, the offices of LGBTIQ organisation Visual Echoes for Human Rights Advocacy (VEHRA) were broken into and trashed, with valuables stolen. The group’s premises in Makindye, a suburb of Kampala, are about 200 metres from Kinono’s home, where they were found dead.

Steven Muleme, executive director of VEHRA, told openDemocracy that he only reported the robbery to police “for purposes of records”. Days after the break-in, he received an anonymous phone call from someone claiming to be behind the robbery, who threatened to blackmail and kill him.

But Muleme said he does not trust the police enough to tell them the truth about the work his organisation does, his sexuality and its relevance to the incident. “It would only continue to put me at risk,” he said. ‘I can’t trust the police, especially the Ugandan police.”

Friends speak out

Eric Ndawula, former executive director of Let’s Walk Uganda, was one of the 16 arrested in 2019. He had first met Kinono earlier that year, and they remained friends. Ndawula told openDemocracy that Kinono had tried to keep in touch with everyone long after they’d left the shelter, which has now relocated. 

After the news of Karim’s death, Kinono quickly reached out to the rest of the group. According to Ndawula, “[Kinono] said: ‘You people, it’s been two years and we haven’t seen each other and now one of us is dead.’ So they formed a WhatsApp group for us. Now 14 of us are left.”

Despite what happened at the shelter, Ndawula said the neighbourhood had “some sort of social protection” and that Kinono probably thought this too, as they decided to rent a room opposite the shelter as soon as they could afford their own housing. They often offered temporary accommodation to other queer people, with up to four people sometimes staying in their single room. 

Friends say that, later, Kinono wanted a more spacious place and found a one-bedroom apartment across town where they continued to offer space to other queer people in need. But only days after they had moved in, they were found murdered.

I just want to see the truth coming out… I want justice for my friend

Comfort

Comfort (not his real name) is a gay man who went to secondary school with Kinono. Last year, when Comfort was homeless, Kinono gave him a place to stay for two months. Two days before they died, Kinono called Comfort to tell him about their new apartment and asked him to visit. The two spoke at length, reminiscing about their school days and how their families had reacted to finding out they were gay. 

Kinono followed up by text the next day, but Comfort was busy and could not respond immediately. The following evening, 11 July, Comfort was shocked to see “RIP Matthew’’ messages circulating on WhatsApp, accompanied by a gruesome photo of Kinono’s body.

“Do you know how it feels to speak to a friend, smiling, and just days later, you see them lying dead in a pool of blood?” said Comfort.

Friends described Kinono as “kind” and a “talented singer and rapper”, who performed “with a lot of vibe and expression” and loved to sing every Nicki Minaj song from start to finish. 

“No matter how long it takes, I just want to see the truth coming out. I want the person who did that to Matthew caught and justice for my friend served,” said Comfort.

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