Ugandan police said on Wednesday that a man had confessed to murdering a gay rights activist after a “personal disagreement” in an attack last week that sparked worldwide fury.
David Kato, one of the country’s most visible gay campaigners, was beaten to death with a hammer at his home on Thursday and died on the way to hospital.
Homosexuality is taboo in many African nations. It is illegal in 37 countries on the continent, including Uganda, and activists say few Africans are openly gay, fearing imprisonment, violence and loss of jobs.
Kato had been featured in an anti-gay newspaper in October that “outed” people it said were gay and called on the government to kill them. His photograph was published on the cover under the headline: “Hang Them.”
The activist said he had received death threats since the publication.
“The prime suspect, Nsubuga Enock, was arrested today at around 4pm when he went to visit his girlfriend,” police spokesman Vincent Ssetake told Reuters.
“He has confessed to the murder. It wasn’t a robbery and it wasn’t because Kato was an activist. It was a personal disagreement but I can’t say more than that.”
Ssetake said that Enock would appear in court on Wednesday evening.
Police said last week that Enock, whom they described as a “well-known thief,” had been staying with Kato after the activist bailed him out of prison on January 24.
Kato’s driver was also arrested in connection with the murder. Police spokespeople could not confirm whether he had since been released.
Gay rights activists told Reuters they feared police may try to cover up a motive of homophobia to protect the Western aid upon which the country relies. They said they wanted proof from police that Kato was not killed over his sexuality.
Uganda’s anti-gay movement first won international notoriety in October 2009 when a bill was tabled in the country’s parliament proposing the death penalty for homosexuals who are “repeat offenders.”
A parliamentary debate on that bill was quietly postponed under international pressure, but rights groups fear some form of it may pass after a February presidential election that President Yoweri Museveni is expected to win.
The murder of Kato, who was a well-known activist outside Uganda, made worldwide headlines and governments and rights groups lined up to criticise Uganda for failing to tackle what some called “a culture of hate.”
U.S. President Barack Obama said Kato was “a powerful advocate for fairness and freedom” and called on the government to investigate his murder.
Scuffles broke out between locals and friends of Kato at his funeral on Friday after the pastor conducting the service called on gay people to repent and villagers refused to bury the coffin.
A group of Kato’s friends, most of whom were gay, then carried his coffin to the grave and buried it themselves.