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August 23, 2007

CRISES ACROSS AFRICA: Gays Under Government Attack in Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda

August has proven to be a perilous months for gays in Nigeria and Cameroon, where large-scale arrests have taken place, and in Uganda, where gay activists have gone into hiding after government ministers this week called for their arrest.

First, in Nigeria:

Nigeria_map An anti-gay riot occurred this August 21, after 18 young men appeared in an Islamic court in the sharia state of Bauchi to face charges of cross-dressing in women’s clothes.

"Any male person who dresses in the fashion of a woman in a public place will be liable to a prison term of one year or 30 lashes," Muhamad Muhamad Bununu, head of the Hisbah — an Islamic vice squad that works with the police and patrols neighborhoods to enforce the strict observance of conservative Islamic morals and dress codes — told Agence France-Presse.

Bauchi is one of a dozen Muslim-dominated states in northern Nigeria that has adopted Islamic sharia law, including criminal law, since 2000, following the end of the military dictatorship in the country of 140 million people. The decision by these states to adopt sharia law "alienated sizable Christian minorities and sparked bouts of sectarian violence that killed thousands," AFP noted in its Tuesday dispatch.

The accused youths, 18 to 22, had originally been arrested on August 4 in a police raid on a wedding party at the Benko Hotel in the Yelwa area of Bauchi, at which the police scooped up 45 people, including women and children — but many of them escaped.

The official Nigerian News Agency initially reported that "the police First Information Report (FIR) described the 18 youths as ‘dressed in women’s fashion practicing sodomy as their profession,’" as the Nigerian daily This Day reported, claiming the accused had gathered at the hotel to celebrate a "gay marriage." The accused "were addressing each other as women and dressing as women," Bununu told Reuters.

Most Nigerian media, which are overwhelmingly homophobic, followed the government news agency’s line, and said the young men had been arrested at a "gay wedding" for "sodomy," a crime punishable by stoning to death under the sharia law in force in the dozen Nigerian states which have adopted it. Some Western news agencies, like the Associated Press, also initially said that the 18 had been arrested for "sodomy."

But by the time the case got to court this Tuesday, the charges had been reduced, and the 18 were formally indicted "under the idle persons and vagabonds section of sharia law," which also forbids cross-dressing, the Hisbah’s Bununu told Agence France-Presse.

Sharia law requires four witnesses to an act of anal penetration for conviction, so Bununu explained to the French news agency, "For now we can’t charge the men with sodomy because we have to have witnesses to testify."

The police brought handbags and suitcases containing women’s high-heel shoes and clothing to this Tuesday’s court hearing as evidence.

But Joseph Akoro, director of The Independent Project (TIP), a Nigerian LGBT group, told a representative of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) who was on the scene in Bauchi for the court hearing that the young men were not wearing women’s clothing at the time of their arrest. Moreover, Akoro said, the marriage being celebrated at the hotel was a heterosexual one.

"This leads us to believe that the charges have been drummed up to incite hatred against gay people in the highly charged environment of our country," Akoro added, referring to Nigeria’s extraordinarily conservative culture in which both Christians and Muslims revile homosexuality as a taboo, and in which draconian anti-gay legislation had been considered earlier this year by the parliament.

That broad-reaching legislation, which was promoted by its supporters as a ban on gay marriage, was denounced in a May 8 New York Times editorial as "in fact an assault on basic rights of association, assembly, and expression" which would have criminalized and provided stiff prison terms for any association or socializing by gays, any speech or writing about homosexuality that did not condemn it, and any advocacy of human rights for LGBT people. The Times editorial called the bill "poisonous."

But Nigerian media hysteria around the Bauchi 18, whose trial, the BBC’s correspondent in that state this week said, has become "a celebrity case," may be the signal that the new government of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, who was elected the country’s head of state in April, intends to revive the anti-gay bill and its omnibus repressions.

That’s the view of IGLHRC’s senior African specialist, Cary Alan Johnson (right), who told me:Cary_alan_johnson_2  "We’d hoped that the bill was dead, and that the government realized that international opinion was mobilized against it. The proposed anti-gay law had been condemned by the European Union, the Italian parliament, four rapporteurs of the United Nations, and even by the U.S. State Department."

"Now," Johnson continued, "My fear is that these arrests and the way they are being framed by the Nigerian media— as ‘sodomy’ that occurred at a ‘gay wedding’ at the hotel when neither happened — is being used to prepare the field for the re-introduction of the bill."

Asked by this reporter who he thought had informed the police of the presence of so many young gays at the heterosexual wedding, Johnson said it was "probably the Hisbah, which is similar to the vigilante groups in Iran" that target gay people.

At the end of the court hearing this Tuesday, five of the 18 accused were freed after each paying bail of 20,000 Naira (roughly $158). The 13 others who could not make bail were returned to prison.

As the five who’d been freed on bail left the courthouse, trying to hide their faces to avoid being recognized or photographed, they were violently attacked by a stone-throwing crowd of mostly young protestors hollering anti-gay epithets. Some of the stones hit not only police but some of the many Nigerian and foreign journalists who’d come to Bauchi for the court hearing. Police had to fire teargas and shots in the air to disperse the angry crowd.

Joel Nana, IGLHRC’s research and policy associate for West Africa — who’d been sent to Bauchi to observe the court proceeding — said the behavior of the crowd was "shocking."

Joel_gustave_nana Nana, 25, (left) who was a co-founder of the Cameroon LGBT rights group Alternatives Cameroon before going to work for IGLHRC, said, "Both the prisoners and their lawyers were dehumanized and attacked by the crowd — it seemed as if these men had already been tried and convicted."

The next court appearance in the prosecution of the Bauchi 18 has been postponed until September 13 "to give the new prosecutor time to familiarize himself with the case," several Nigerian media reported.

The Bauchi 18 are being represented by two lawyers from Nigeria’s Legal Reform and Assistance Project, a non-gay human rights group which had been contacted by IGLHRC.

"It’s one of the positive developments that we’ve been able to develop straight allies in Nigeria who recognize that LGBT rights are an integral part of the human rights fight," IGLHRC’s Johnson told me.

But the Nigerian daily This Day reported that one of the defense lawyers, Barrister Ralph Moye, had to ask for an interpreter, as the court proceedings were conducted in Hausa, and he is non-Hausa speaking. English is Nigeria’s official language, but nine major dialects, including Hausa, are widely spoken in different areas of the country.

Cameroon_map In Cameroon, six teenagers have been jailed without trial since July 30 on charges of homosexuality following police use of torture to make other youths "name names" of their gay friends in Douala, the country’s largest city with a population estimated at more than 2 million.

In Cameroon, homosexuality is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Three adolescents had been taken to the police commissariat in Douala’s Bonassama district because they had allegedly stolen something from the house of the parents of one of them.

But while the young trio was at the commissariat, one of them received a text message on his cell phone that police said indicated he was involved in a homosexual relationship, according to a report prepared by Sebastien Mandeng, human rights coordinator for Alternatives Cameroon, the group IGLHRC’s Nana had founded.

"The police, who used a mixture of coercion, torture, and promises of liberty, forced the adolescents to admit their homosexuality and sign a transcript of that admission— but also to reveal the identity of the six other gay teenagers, who were then arrested," said Mandeng’s report. "The police ambushed those who‘d been named — they called the six boys and got them to come to a rendezvous, and when they showed up they were arrested."

Activist Mandeng said that the police refused to give him any information when he showed up at the commissariat to inquire about the arrested youths and sought to meet with them, but he managed to speak to them from outside the jail through a window of the cell where they were being held, thus learning their identities and what had happened to them.

After being held for 10 days in the Bonassama commissariat — more then the three days of detention allowed by law if no indictment has come down – the six teenagers were transferred to Douala’s New Bell Prison, where they are still being held, without trial and without being afforded legal counsel.

Commenting on the imprisoned, teenaged Douala 6, IGLHRC’s Johnson said, "The tactics of the Cameroonian government define the term ‘witch hunt.’ Imagine being forced to denounce your friends. Imagine finding yourself in prison because your name is on a list."

In a letter to Cameroon’s minister of Justice, Alternatives Cameroon’s Steave Neamande denounced the continued pattern of arrests of gay men in his country, noting, "Hardly a month goes by without reports of the arrests of people because of their sexuality." (For extensive background on the dire situation facing LGBTs in Cameroon and interviews with leading activists, see this reporter’s November 2-8, 2006 Gay City News article, "U.N. Condemns Cameroon Jailings,")

Uganda_map In Uganda, most of that nation’s small group of LGBT activists went into hiding this week following calls for their arrest by Deputy Attorney General Fred Ruhinde and Minister of Ethics and Integrity Nsaba Butoro. Speaking on the Radio One public radio and other private radio stations, the two high government officials, in demanding that the activists be jailed, demonstrated their solidarity with a church-led anti-gay rally Aug. 21, which Butoro attended.

Held at a Kampala rugby field, the rally was organized by the Interfaith Coalition Against Homosexuality, an alliance of Christian, Muslim, and Baha’i congregations.

At the rally, which drew several hundred people, the anti-gay protesters carried dozens ofUganda_antigay_roubos_poster  placards ranging from "Arrest all homos" to "God loves homos, he hates homosexuality," Reuters reported.

Other placards called for the firing and deportation of Katherine Roubos, a 22-year-old U.S. intern at the local independent newspaper Daily Monitor, for reporting on the experiences of gays in Uganda. (left, the placard calling for Roubos deportation.)

Aga_khan "Aga Khan, fire Katherine Roubos, homo propagandist," one said, while another read: "Government deport Roubos." The Daily Monitor is part of the regional Nation Media Group partly owned by the Aga Khan (left), spiritual leader of more than 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims worldwide. He is visiting Uganda, which is a predominately Christian country with a Muslim minority.

The anti-gay rally was designed as a response to the launch of a pro-gay mediaUganda_gay_masked  campaign at an August 17 press conference, the first-ever held by Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), a coalition of four LGBT groups headed for the last several years by Victor Juliet Mukasa, a transgendered lesbian and one of the few LGBT activists willing to speak in public. A number of the seven panelists at the SMUG press conference wore elaborate masks to conceal their identities (right, a masked panelist at the SMUG press conference in Kampala)

Mukasa (left) was forced to flee into exile in South Africa in fear of her life after policeVictor_juliet_mukasa  raided her home two years ago, seized SMUG materials, and forced a friend to strip to prove she was really a woman. Mukasa has now returned to Uganda to pursue a civil lawsuit against the nation’s attorney general who authorized the raid on her home. (For background, see this reporter’s September 14-20, 2006 Gay City News article, "Uganda Witch Hunt Escalates.")

Roubros’ Daily Monitor article on the SMUG press conference reported that participants said "police have repeatedly demanded sexual favors or personal bribes in exchange for release from custody. ‘This is not protecting Ugandans, said a man wearing a mask and a name card with the alias ‘Douglas.’ ‘This is not protecting Ugandans, it is threatening people for profit. This is certainly not within the law,’ exclaimed Douglas."

Roubos, a Stanford University student, denied campaigning for gays, saying she was simply doing her work.

"I was assigned a story by the editor and I did it objectively. My job is to report on events, not my personal opinions," she told Reuters.

Uganda's laws prescribe prison terms for consensual homosexuality ranging from five years to life imprisonment.

For an extensive 2004 report by Human Rights Watch, see "Political Sharia? Human Rights and Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria For more information on LGBTs in Uganda, visit the Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) Web site For more information on the situation of Nigeria's LGBTs, visit the Nigeria section of the blog of Rod McCullom, a former producer and writer for ABC News and NBC News.

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