KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) -- Ugandan lawmakers on Friday passed an anti-gay bill that calls for life imprisonment for "aggravated homosexuality," drawing criticism from rights campaigners who called it draconian and unnecessary in a country where homosexuality has long been criminalized.
When the bill was first introduced in 2009, it was widely condemned for including the death penalty, but that was removed from the revised version passed by parliament. Instead it sets life imprisonment as the penalty for a new felony called aggravated homosexuality, according to the office of a spokeswoman for Uganda's parliament.
The bill must be signed by President Yoweri Museveni to become law.
Aggravated homosexuality is defined as a homosexual act where one of the partners is infected with HIV, sex with minors and the disabled, as well as repeated sexual offenses among consenting adults.
The bill also calls for a seven-year jail term for a person who "conducts a marriage ceremony" for same-sex couples.
The passage of the bill makes it "a truly terrifying day for human rights in Uganda," said Frank Mugisha, a prominent Ugandan gay activist, who urged the country's president not to sign the legislation into law.
"It will open a new era of fear and persecution," he said. "If this law is signed by President Museveni, I'd be thrown in jail for life and in all likelihood killed."
Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda under a colonial-era law that criminalized sexual acts "against the order of nature," but the Ugandan lawmaker who wrote the new legislation argued that tougher legislation was needed because homosexuals from the West threatened to destroy Ugandan families and were allegedly "recruiting" Ugandan children into gay lifestyles.
Ugandan gays disputed this account, saying that Ugandan political and religious leaders had come under the influence of American evangelicals who wanted to spread their anti-gay campaign in Africa. Ugandan gays singled out Scott Lively, a Massachusetts evangelical, and sued him in March 2012 under the Alien Tort Statute that allows non-citizens to file suit in the United States if there is an alleged violation of international law.
Lively denied he wanted severe punishment for gays, and has previously told The Associated Press he never advocated violence against gays but advised therapy for them.
Ugandan gays had believed progress was being made to strengthen their rights in a country where prejudice against homosexuals is rampant. In 2012 they held their first gay pride parade and have sometimes joined street marches in support of all human rights.
Despite criticism of the anti-gay legislation abroad, it was highly popular among Ugandans who said the country had the right to pass laws that protect its children.
Amid international criticism, the bill was repeatedly shelved despite the protests of Ugandan lawmakers. Days before Christmas last year, the speaker of Uganda's parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, said the anti-gay legislation would be passed as a "Christmas gift" to all Ugandans.
When the bill was first proposed, United States President Barack Obama called it "odious."
Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the bill passed Friday is "still appalling" despite some amendments.
"Clearly, President Museveni should reject the bill and send a clear message that Uganda doesn't stand for this type of intolerance and discrimination," she said.