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Friday, 4 November 2011

Nigeria pushes on with draconian anti-gay bill

Nigerian parliament
By Paul Canning

Nigerian and international human rights bodies have opposed that country's draconian proposed anti-same-sex marriage bill.

The bill would punish people of the same sex who live together as a couple with up to three years in prison. Anyone who "witnesses, abet[s] and aids" such a relationship could be imprisoned for up to five years. The bill could even be used against foreigners in same-sex marriages if they enter Nigeria.

In a letter to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives, the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission, and other national, regional and international bodies urged legislators to reject the bill. If passed, the groups appealed to Jonathan to veto it.

Nigeria's parliament has twice before seen anti-gay bills. Both times they ended up being dropped in the face of civil society protest in Nigeria supported by an international outcry. Article 214 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act already provides up to 14 years in prison for anyone who "has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature."

According to a report in Behind The Mask, legislators are trying to get this bill passed by ‘wrong footing’ Nigerian activists and international attention. But opponents managed to attend a first parliamentary hearing 31 October.

At the same time a care2 petition with over 12,000 signatures was presented.

According to Yemisi Ilesanmi of Nigerian LGBTI in Diaspora Against Anti Same Sex Laws:

"A lady from the LGBT coalition stepped forward [at the hearing] to present the position paper of Nigeria LGBTI in Diaspora Against Same Sex Laws. She was interjected many times by different religious and other homophobic groups present in the room with the aim to bully and humiliate her. She bravely carried on with the presentation of the paper amidst all the distractions. However, she was soon overwhelmed by the unruly crowd and eventually broke down in tears."
"She managed to finish the presentation amidst abuses and offensive calls mostly from religious groups present. The senators immediately assailed her with so many questions without giving her any space to catch her breath. Many of the questions asked were irrelevant and mostly intended to humiliate her; in fact many of the questions would pass as hate comments in any civilized country. Some of the questions asked by the senators were “Do you believe in God?” “Are you a lesbian?” “Do you know that homosexuality was imported from the western world to Africa?” Her response that she is a Catholic generated a lot of unprintable remarks."

When a woman from a Catholic lawyers’ group spoke saying that homosexuals are mentally deranged people and that no one in the room would openly identify as a homosexual, one of the bill's opponents stood up and said "I am a gay and proud to be!"

He said that cameras immediately focused on him and religious groups started screaming abuses.

He was disappointed to see that no one else stood with him that time, but later during the hearing " four courageous faces" stood with him out of 30 LGBT people present. Those who did not explained later that they feared the consequences of publicly identifying as gay.

There was a great disparity in allotted time at the hearing, says Ilesanmi, and amongst those supporting the bill were the Inspector General of the Nigerian Police and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA).

Ilesanmi said that in a secular state the Senators violated the fundamental rights of the activists by condoning abuses directed at them and encouraging religious questions.

The international groups opposing the bill point out that:

Criminalizing individuals for "living together as husband and wife" further expands existing anti-gay punishments. They would no longer be limited to sexual acts between people of the same sex, but would potentially include mere cohabitation or any suspected "intimate relationship" between members of the same sex. Far less evidence would be needed for conviction, and prejudice and suspicion would be a basis for arrests. This threatens all Nigerians' right to private life, the groups said. 
The proposed five-year sentence for anyone who "witnesses, abet[s] and aids" a same-sex relationship is greater than the punishment stipulated in the bill for those who enter into a "same gender marriage." This provision could be used to punish anyone who gives any help or advice to a suspected "same gender" couple, for example, anyone who tells them their rights or approves of their relationships. Advocates, civil society organizations, and human rights defenders would be ready targets.

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