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"Witch hunt" for gays, arrests and torture trigger fear in Nigeria

No sooner did President Goodluck Jonathan sign Nigeria’s draconian “Jail The Gays” bill into law, the “witch hunt” for gays has begun in a fury across Africa’s most populous nation.

Dozens of people have been arrested and jailed on suspicion of being gay, and police are being accused of using beatings and torture to compel those arrested to name other gays, who will targeted for detention, according to Amnesty International and various news and service organizations.

"Amnesty International is calling on the authorities to stop all further arrests and put an immediate end to this witch hunt," the human-rights group said in a statement.

What prison sentences the law calls for

The harsh new law, the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill, goes much farther than ban marriage and civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in Nigeria. The new law mandates a 14-year prison sentence for any gay or lesbian couple who marry or enter into a civil union. It also voids those marriages and civil unions validated abroad where they are legal.

Not happy to stop there, the law adds a 10-year prison sentence for anyone gay or straight who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs, societies and organizations or who directly or indirectly makes a public show of a same-gender relationship.

Widespread arrests of gays begin

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that 38 people had been arrested in the northern state of Bauchi since Christmas, and some have been charged with belonging to a gay organization. Christian Science Monitor quoted the executive director of a health organization who said that those 38 men were beaten and tortured to give up names of other gays, and that police are now looking for another 168 gays.

States in the northern part of the country are dominated by Muslims, and Sharia law is enforced along with Nigerian laws. Sharia law says homosexuality is punishable by death, either by a public stoning or lethal injection.

Amnesty said 10 people have been detained since Monday in four southern states, and AFP reported that 24 people are being held in the southern states of Oyo, Imo and Anambra.

The Sharia "religious police" spring into action

On Wednesday, the Hisbah, or Sharia’s so-called religious police, vowed to crack down on homosexual activity across the northern Islamic states.

Usman Nabahani, deputy head of the Hisbah in the state of Kano, told AFP that the new law was welcomed and that the religious police would enforce it. The Hisbah has been rooting out prostitutes and drug addicts in Kano, the largest Muslim city in Nigeria.

"Obviously, we will embark on similar raids on gays and lesbians in Kano," he added, vowing to work "hand in hand" with security agencies to enforce the national legislation.

"From now on, we will go into every nook and corner of Kano state to ensure that (the prohibition of) prostitution, gay marriages, marriages of the same sex and consumption of alcohol... is fully complied with, so that we can have a decent society.

"We are given more power, we are given more support now to wage serious war against these issues," Nabahani said.

AFP detailed arrests of five people in Bauchi who were accused to forming a gay club. Four pleaded guilty.

On Thursday, AP reported that one of the men who pleaded guilty and was convicted of sodomy was flogged 20 times, a punishment handed down by a Sharia court. Mubarak Ibrahim, a 28-year-old unemployed artisan, was whipped in a public setting. He admitted in court that he had sodomy one time seven years ago, and contended that his high school principal coerced him into it. Judge Nuhu Mohammed said he would not sentence Ibrahim to death by stoning because the incident happened long ago and that Ibrahim appeared to show "great remorse." The judge also fined him $30, but it was not known if the man had enough money to pay the fee and get out of prison.

Also, AFP reported that Bauchi state Sharia Commission chief Mustapha Baba Ilela said at least a dozen people had been arrested on suspicion of breaking Sharia laws banning sodomy since Jan. 1.

"All the accused were apprehended by the community, which is averse to homosexuality, and handed over to us," he told AFP.

"The suspects confessed to committing the act they are accused of without threat or inducement and we have the audio and written confessions."

Illela’s statement is contradicted by numerous sources and ignores Nigeria’s shameful history of torturing suspects to obtain confessions and extorting bribes to gain freedom from jail.

Human-rights groups appalled

This week’s allegations of torture alarmed Shawn Gaylord of Human Rights Watch.

"When discriminatory bills like this are passed, we are always concerned that they set the stage for violence and ill-treatment in society even when they are not enforced," Gaylord said in a statement. "But the fact that this law is being enforced so quickly and forcefully demonstrates the full extent of Nigeria's human rights crisis."

Human-rights observers said the new law is an affront to the relatively-new democracy in Nigeria, where its citizens fought so hard to get out from under the boots of military dictatorship. Democratic law went into effect in 1999.

"With the stroke of a pen, President (Goodluck) Jonathan has essentially turned Nigeria into one of the world's least tolerant societies," Amnesty International said.

UN, EU, U.S. and others condemn Nigerian law

Political leaders, mostly from western nations, have blasted the new law. The United Nations and the European Union have urged Nigeria to void the law. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said this week that the U.S. was gravely concerned about implementation of the law.

Some observers believe that President Jonathan is using the draconian law to political advantage, considering that he is facing re-election and knowing that it is popular in a religious nation divided almost equally between Muslims and Christians. But they also fear that the law will be used to target political rivals and enemies.

The eighth most populous nation in the world, Nigeria has a population of 175 million, and an estimated 1 million people are LGBT.

Law's impact on healthcare, HIV and AIDS

Healthcare officials worry that the law will drive those with HIV and AIDS underground, causing the infection rate to skyrocket. Nigeria is second only to South Africa in the number of HIV/AIDS deaths with 220,000 in 2009, according to The World Factbook. An estimated 3.4 million Nigerians are living with the virus, according to the UN.

On Thursday, the Human Rights Campaign called on Secretary of State John Kerry to use all available tools to end the downward spiraling situation in Nigeria.

“In a 2011 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama argued that no country should deny people their rights because of who they love. It’s never been more important for the United States to stand behind those words,” Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said. “The State Department must use every available tool to demonstrate that any nation which targets its own LGBT citizens and violates their civil rights gravely risks its standing in the international community.”

HRC said it has been engaged with allies on Capitol Hill and in the administration to urge a forceful response from the United States government, in keeping with their commendable commitment to LGBT and other human rights issues overseas.

Local LGBT and HIV/AIDS activists have reported that police are illegally tapping the cell phones of people they suspect of being gay and then sending text messages as bait for others. Police are also threatening to expose the accused sexual orientation of these men and women unless they pay a bribe of 5,000 to 10,000 naira ($30 – $60) without any evidence, according to HRC.

“This law bars LGBT people from safe access to health care in a country that faces the second-largest HIV rate globally. That is simply unconscionable,” Griffin said.

Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, called the law "an affront to Nigeria's own constitution."

"This catastrophic law legalizes human rights abuses against an already marginalized group," Kennedy said.

Constitutional law experts confirm Kennedy’s statement, noting that Nigeria’s constitution provides the fundamental rights to freedom of speech, conscience and assembly. By denying those basic rights to a million Nigerians, the new law appears to be a gross violation of those guarantees in the constitution.

A brave Nigerian journalist speaks out

Nigeria’s media are notoriously pro-government, so little criticism of the law has made it into print or online. One brave Nigerian journalist, Prince Charles Dickson, has spoken out against the law in a piece published online by Ngex! Dickson meets with LGBT Nigerians, and writes about the struggle they face to survive in such a hostile environment. His conclusion:

As in all repressively homophobic cultures, LGBT people continue to find ways to express and to live out their authentic selves. They are part of Nigerian society at all levels. Some hold prominent jobs in government, businesses, the military and even as religious leaders. But it's not a leap to suggest that the majority keep their sexuality a secret for fear of losing their families, friends, jobs, freedom or even their lives.

Despite Nigeria's strict laws, the debate over LGBT rights and same-sex relationships is nowhere near resolution. My reporting reveals Nigeria's gay culture, though largely silent, isn't going away. On this vexatious issue, I believe in windows of possibility. Nigerians and other Africans need to strike a balance. Might the day come when Nigerians respect the rights of its LGBT community and the LGBT community be respectful to those who uphold heterosexual relationships exclusively?

Learning to live in peace doesn't mean we will agree with one another on all matters. Nor does being civil toward one another mean we endorse one another's behavior or beliefs. Change is a part of life and throughout life we change and accommodate new understandings of behavior and circumstances. As a journalist and writer, I strongly believe there's need for understanding and that understanding is key to Nigeria's path forward on this issue.

- Should the LGBT community be discriminated against? Should their human rights be abused?
- Should they face imprisonment? Should they be flogged?
- Should they be put to death?

My answer is NO!

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Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.