A Ugandan court on Friday invalidated an anti-gay bill signed into law earlier this year, saying the measure is illegal because it was passed during a parliamentary session that lacked a quorum.
The panel of five judges on the East African country's Constitutional Court said the speaker of parliament acted illegally when she allowed a vote on the measure despite at least three objections — including from the country's prime minister — over a lack of a quorum when the bill was passed on Dec. 20.
"The speaker was obliged to ensure that there was a quorum," the court said in its ruling. "We come to the conclusion that she acted illegally."
The ruling was made before a courtroom packed with Ugandans opposing or supporting the measure. Activists erupted in loud cheers after the court ruled the law is now "null and void."
The anti-gay measure provided for jail terms of up to life for those convicted of engaging in gay sex. It also allowed lengthy jail terms for those convicted of the offenses of "attempted homosexuality" as well as "promotion of homosexuality."
Frank Mugisha, a Ugandan gay leader, said the ruling Friday was a "step forward" for gay rights even though he was concerned about possible retaliation.
Ugandan lawyer Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, an attorney for the activists, said the ruling "upholds the rule of law and constitutionalism in Uganda."
Lawyers and activists challenged the anti-gay law after it was enacted in February on the grounds that it was illegally passed and that it violated certain rights guaranteed in Uganda's constitution.
The court ruled Friday that the activists' entire petition had been disposed of since the law was illegally passed in the first place. This means there will be no further hearings about the activists' argument that the anti-gay measure discriminated against some Ugandans in violation of the country's constitution.
Nicholas Opiyo, a Ugandan lawyer who was among the petitioners, welcomed the ruling but said there is still a missed opportunity to debate the substance of the law. "The ideal situation would have been to deal with the other issues of the law, to sort out this thing once and for all," Opiyo said.
A colonial-era law that criminalizes sex acts "against the order of nature," still remains in effect in Uganda, allowing for the continued arrests of alleged homosexual offenders, Opiyo said.
Lawmakers will likely also try to reintroduce a new anti-gay measure, he said.
Kosiya Kasibayo, a state attorney, said a decision had not been made on whether to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court, Uganda's highest court.
The anti-gay measure was enacted on Feb. 24 by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who said he wanted to deter Western groups from promoting homosexuality among African children.
Although the legislation has wide support in Uganda, it has been condemned in the West and rights groups have described it as draconian. The U.S., which wants the law repealed, has withheld or redirected funding to some Ugandan institutions accused of involvement in rights abuses.
The ruling Friday may also win the Ugandan delegation a softer landing in the U.S. next week as it heads to Washington for a gathering led by President Barack Obama.