ENTEBBE, Uganda -- Uganda's president on Monday signed an anti-gay bill that punishes gay sex with as much as life in prison, a measure likely to send Uganda's beleaguered gay community further underground as police try to implement it amid fevered anti-gay sentiment across the country.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said the bill, which goes into effect immediately, was needed because the West is promoting homosexuality in Africa. Mr. Museveni may have defied Western pressure to shelve the bill, four years and many versions after it was introduced, but his move -- likely to galvanize support ahead of presidential elections -- pleased many Ugandans who repeatedly urged him to sign the legislation.
Nigeria's president similarly signed an anti-gay bill into law just more than a month ago, sparking increased violence against gays who already were persecuted in mob attacks. Some watchdog groups warn that a similar backlash of violence may occur in Uganda.
"Experience from other jurisdictions with similarly draconian laws, such as Nigeria or Russia, indicates that their implementation is often followed by a surge in violence against individuals thought to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender," the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission said in a statement Monday. "The Ugandan government has not indicated any plans to counter such violence or to investigate potential allegations of abuse."
The Ugandan law calls for first-time offenders to be sentenced to 14 years in jail. It sets life imprisonment as the maximum penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," defined as repeated gay sex between consenting adults and acts involving a minor, a disabled person or where one partner is infected with HIV. In its original draft, the bill called for the death penalty for some homosexual acts, but that was removed after an international outcry.
The new law is widely popular in Uganda, where it has been championed by Christian clerics and many politicians. But it has been condemned around the world.
In Washington, President Barack Obama warned that signing the bill would "complicate" the East African nation's relationship with Washington. After it was signed, the White House said the United States would urge Uganda's government to repeal the "abhorrent law."
"As President Obama has said, this law is more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda; it reflects poorly on the country's commitment to protecting the human rights of its people and will undermine public health, including efforts to fight HIV/AIDS," the White House statement said.
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, warned that the law would institutionalize discrimination and could encourage harassment and violence against gays.
The office of European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement that she is "is deeply concerned" by "draconian legislation" to criminalize homosexuality in Uganda.
At least six people have already been arrested over alleged homosexual offenses, and more than a dozen fled Uganda since lawmakers passed the bill in December, according to a prominent Ugandan gay activist, Pepe Julian Onziema. "The president is making this decision because he has never met an openly gay person. That disappoints me," he said.
Mr. Museveni signed the bill at the presidential palace as government officials, journalists and Ugandan scientists looked on. Government officials applauded after Mr. Museveni affixed his signature. Scientists had written a report that found that there is no proven genetic basis for homosexuality, Mr. Museveni said, citing that as a reason for signing the bill. "They should rehabilitate themselves, and society should assist them to do so," he said after signing the bill.
Some European nations have threatened to cut aid to Uganda if the measure were enacted, though some EU officials cautioned that interrupting development aid may not be the best reaction, since it would harm Ugandans.
But Mr. Museveni said at the signing that he rejected such interference in Ugandan affairs. "We Africans never seek to impose our view on others. If only they could let us alone," he said. "We have been disappointed for a long time by the conduct of the West. There is now an attempt at social imperialism."
Mr. Museveni accused "arrogant and careless Western groups" of trying to recruit Ugandan children into homosexuality, but did not name the purported groups. He said he believes that Western homosexuals have targeted poor Ugandans, who then "prostitute" themselves for the money, an allegation repeated by the bill's Ugandan defenders. Mr. Museveni did not cite any examples of people he called "mercenary homosexuals."
The anti-gay measure was introduced in 2009 by a ruling party lawmaker, David Bahati, who said the law was necessary to deter Western homosexuals from "recruiting" Ugandan children. Mr. Bahati said Monday that the bill's enactment is "a triumph of our sovereignty, a victory for the people of Uganda, the children of Uganda."
Several Ugandan gays say Mr. Bahati and other politicians were influenced by conservative American evangelicals who wanted to spread their anti-gay agenda in Africa.