Botswana’s High Court ruled Tuesday in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality, handing down a landmark verdict greeted with joy by gay rights campaigners.
Under the country’s 1965 penal code, homosexuality is punishable by a jail term of up to seven years.
But Judge Michael Elburu declared it was time to “set aside” the “provisions of a Victorian era” and ordered the laws be amended.
In a courtroom packed with activists, the judge declared that the current laws oppressed a minority of the population.
“There’s nothing reasonable in discriminating,” he said.
“We say the time has come that private, same sexuality must be decriminalized.”
“It is a variety of human sexuality,” he said.
Jubilation erupted in the courtroom as the decision was announced, with some campaigners kissing, while others applauded or waved the rainbow flag – a symbol of gay rights.
“We are making history so that people may know who they are and express their feelings, express love because God talks about love,” an ecstatic Thabo Otukile told AFP outside the court.
— Ryan Brown (@ryanlenorabrown) June 11, 2019
In Geneva, the U.N. agency UNAIDS added to the applause.
“This is a historic ruling for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Botswana,” Gunilla Carlsson, UNAIDS’ executive director, said in a statement.
“It restores privacy, respect and dignity to the country’s LGBT people, and it is a day to celebrate pride, compassion and love.”
Activists had launched the legal battle after the Home Affairs ministry rejected an application to register the Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) organization.
The main applicant, identified only by initials LM for security reasons, challenged sections 164 and 167 of the penal code.
LEGABIBO chief Anna Mmolai-Chalmers was overwhelmed by the outcome saying it was the culmination of “twenty years hard work” and signaled “the end of the exclusion.”
“For a lot of us it has not sunk in,” she said.
In March, the court postponed a ruling on the issue, sparking fears that the much-awaited decision could be delayed indefinitely.
But on Tuesday, Judge Elburu stressed that the country’s highest judicial body took the matter deeply seriously.
“Sexual orientation is human, it’s not a question of fashion,” he said. “The question of private morality should not be the concerns of the law.”
Anneke Meerkotter, of the Southern Africa Litigation Center (SALC), described the judgment as “groundbreaking,” adding that it allows LGBT rights to be protected under the charter.
“Culture cannot be excused to violate constitutional rights. The judgment showed the world how it can be done,” she said.
Last month, Kenya’s High Court upheld laws against same-sex relations, dealing a blow to activists campaigning to roll back anti-gay laws and stigma which are widespread in Africa.
Many Kenyans hailed the Botswana decision on social media saying it gave them hope for their country.
“As a queer activist in Kenya, after the disappointment of #Repeal162 ruling, the #Repeal164 ruling is the turbo charge my engine needed to continue the fight. Congratulations to all LGBTI in Botswana, in Africa,” Kenyan activist Gigi Louisa tweeted.
At present 28 out of 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Botswana, have laws penalizing same-sex relationships, according to Human Rights Watch.
The death penalty is on the books, under sharia, in Mauritania, Sudan, and northern Nigeria, although there have been no known executions in recent times.
In southern Somalia, gay men are believed to have been put to death in territory ruled by the Al Shabaab jihadist group.
However, Angola, Mozambique, and Seychelles have scrapped anti-gay laws in recent years.
Rights groups say many laws punishing homosexuality in Africa date from the colonial area. Even in countries where they are not implemented, their existence on the statute books entrenches discrimination and encourages harassment.
UNAIDS said decriminalization would help the fight against AIDS.
The large southern African country has a population of only 2.3 million, but is struggling with one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world.
According to UNAIDS figures, 22.8 percent of adults aged between 15 and 49 in Botswana are living with the AIDS virus.
Outreach worker Thato Game Tsie said scrapping the anti-gay laws would help the community access health care and treatment more easily.
“There are many services we require as gay men that some nurses are not aware of, and if we go to a government hospital there will be those negative comments said to you,” Game Tsie told AFP.
“So we just want to be free to access these services.”
Legal and political steps in favor of liberalization had come before Tuesday’s historic decision.
In 2016, the country’s appeals court ruled that the government was wrong to refuse to register an organization representing homosexuals and other minority sexual groups.
Last December, President Mokgweetsi Masisi addressed a meeting on gender-based violence, saying there are “many people of same sex relationships in this country who have been violated and have also suffered in silence.”
“Just like other citizens, they deserve to have their rights protected,” he said.