Arbitrary arrests in Ghana. Homophobic censorship in Kenya. Raids of LGBT people in Rwanda. Human Rights Watch has shone the spotlight on each of these abuses in recent days.
Here are excerpts from recent HRW coverage on:
Extreme anti-LGBT bill stirs hostility
Arbitrary arrests and detentions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Ghana, along with a draconian anti-LGBT bill, are causing severe economic hardship and psychological stress for LGBT people, Human Rights Watch found.
In July, eight MPs introduced the Ghanaian Human Sexual Rights and Family Values Promotion Bill 2021, which would prohibit and criminalize any advocacy for LGBT identity. It is an affront to dignity, privacy and non-discrimination, and an attack on the freedoms of speech, expression, association and assembly. The bill is currently under consideration by the Special Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs.
LGBT people already face severe and arbitrary sanctions in Ghana. On May 20, 2021, police in Ho, Volta region, raided and illegally arrested 21 people, including a technician, during a paralegal training workshop on how to document and report human rights violations against LGBT people. They were detained for 22 days, then released on bail and charged with unlawful assembly, a misdemeanor. The case was then dismissed for lack of evidence of a crime.
Police wrongly justified the arrests on the grounds that the training session “promoted homosexuality” and that the rally was an “illegal gathering”. Section 201 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2003 of Ghana (Act 646) defines unlawful assembly as a gathering of three or more persons with the intent to commit an offense, which is clearly not applicable in this case, according to Human Rights Watch.
“It is shocking that the police who should protect Ghanaians raided a peaceful assembly, arrested the participants and subjected them to three weeks in harsh detention conditions for a charge that should never have been brought in the first place,” said Wendy Isaack, LGBT Rights Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the bill before Parliament becomes law, it will undoubtedly intensify the abuses against LGBT people. “
Activists said eight police officers, along with three journalists, forced their way into the conference hall, physically assaulted some participants and confiscated training materials, laptops and diaries. Several heavily armed members of the Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (SWAT) were waiting outside the nurses and midwives’ home, where the meeting was being held, to help with the arrests. The activists were taken to Ho Police Headquarters and then back to the hostel, where their rooms were searched for “evidence” that they were committing a crime.
AG, a 25-year-old lesbian, describes the conditions in the cell where she was held with four other women as being like a dungeon, with no window or light. The activists brought them the only food and drinking water she and her fellow inmates received.
“My family did not visit me while I was in the cells,” she said. “I felt suicidal and really wanted to die while I was there. Even though we’re on bail, I still have suicidal thoughts because it’s far from over.
The experience of a 24-year-old computer student and equipment technician who was among those arrested highlights the arbitrariness of the arrests and the dangers of the proposed law, which would make any engagement in LGBT advocacy illegal. He had been hired by workshop organizers to repair their equipment and was waiting to be paid when the police arrived.
“I tried to explain to the police, but they refused to listen to me,” he said. “I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He was detained for 22 days with the others and lost his job as a result.
The Ghanaian parliament should ensure that any bill it passes regarding LGBT rights complies with international standards on freedom of expression. It should also reflect the 1993 Supreme Court ruling in New Patriotic Party v. Inspector General of Police that, except in time of war or when a state of emergency has been declared, no executive agency should suppress the free expression of any opinion, however unpopular. The court said all Ghanaians, including lesbians and gays, have the right to freely express their opinions, to come together and demonstrate in support of those opinions and to propagate those opinions.
For more information, read the HRW’s full article on Ghana.
The fight for LGBT rights will not be silenced
By Neela Ghoshal
I have never met Samuel, the Kenyan gay protagonist of the acclaimed documentary “I Am Samuel”. But I feel like I know him. Not only does filmmaker Peter Murimi’s calm, steady and honest portrayal of Samuel’s day-to-day life create a sense of intimacy and familiarity, Samuel is the kind of person you know.
Because despite discrimination, the laws criminalize their relationships and threat of violence, LGBT people in Kenya are ordinary people who lead ordinary lives. They work as construction workers, like Samuel; as hawkers (street vendors), nurses, accountants and lawyers. If they live in Nairobi, like Samuel, they visit their families in “shags” (Nairobi slang for rural places of origin), and find both commonalities and differences with rural relatives, who have struggling to understand aspects of their urbanized life. If they find love, a community of friends and often family members celebrates and supports them. Life isn’t easy when your government officially designates you as a second-class citizen, but the daily routines, challenges, and little joys remain, all of which are documented as part of Samuel’s life in Murimi’s film. .
On September 23, the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) slapped a ban on “I Am Samuel”, claiming that the film violates Kenyan values. What values? During my years living in Kenya, the values that I saw in action every day included caring and kindness, tolerance and openness to difference. Kenya is diverse in every way: geographically, ethnically, religiously and, yes, in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. For more than a decade, LGBT people have publicly asserted their place within Kenya’s vibrant social fabric, defying discrimination and claiming their rights.
KFCB may want to silence them with flimsy claims that reduce Samuel and his partner Alex’s rich relationship to one “gay marriage program. “It won’t work; censorship rarely does. Like the lesbian-themed film”Rafiki”, Banned by KFCB in 2018, Samuel’s story will be seen by Kenyans who will make up their own minds. By trying to force blinders to deny the existence and rights of LGBT people, KFCB is on the wrong side of history.
For more information, read the HRW’s full article on Kenya.
Rwanda: roundups linked to Commonwealth meeting
Detention, abuse of poor, gay and transgender people
Rwandan Authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained more than a dozen gay and transgender people, sex workers, street children and others in the months leading up to a meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) scheduled for June 2021, according to Human Rights Watch.
They were held in a transit center in the Gikondo district of the capital Kigali, unofficially called “Kwa Kabuga”. The center is known for its harsh and inhumane conditions, which appear to have deteriorated further due to the increase in the number of detainees and the pandemic. The CHOGM was initially scheduled for June 2020, rescheduled for June 2021, and finally postponed indefinitely in May.
“Rwanda’s strategy to promote Kigali as a hub for meetings and conferences often means continued abuses against the capital’s poorest and most marginalized residents,” says Lewis mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “As the meeting is rescheduled, Rwanda’s Commonwealth partners have a choice to either defend the rights of victims or remain silent as the crackdown is carried out on their behalf. “
At Gikondo, detainees are held in overcrowded rooms in conditions well below the standards required by Rwandan and international law. Former detainees said they lacked food, water and health care; suffer frequent beatings; and are rarely allowed to leave dirty and overcrowded rooms. People have been detained there without basic due process standards. None of the former detainees interviewed have been formally charged with a criminal offense and none have seen a prosecutor, judge or lawyer before or during their detention. There was no measure to protect people from Covid-19, and former detainees said they did not have access to tests, soap, masks or basic hygiene and sanitation equipment.
Interviewees who identified as gay or transgender said security officials accused them of “not representing Rwandan values.” They said that other inmates beat them because of their clothes and who they were. Three other inmates, who were held in the “delinquents” room at Gikondo, confirmed that fellow inmates and guards beat people they knew to be gay or transgender more frequently and more violently than others.
In the pass, raids have been linked to high-profile government events, before which security forces may step up efforts to “clean” the streets of Kigali. Human Rights Watch documented a similar raid in 2016 ahead of an African Union summit in Kigali. Ahead of the now postponed 2021 Commonwealth meeting, several former detainees said police told them they didn’t want them on the streets during the event.
Rwanda is one of the few East African countries that does not criminalize consensual same-sex relationships. Vagrancy, begging and sex work are also not criminalized. Yet authorities continue to use the Gikondo transit center to imprison people accused of “deviant behavior harmful to the public”, including street vending and homelessness.
“Based on past experience, it is highly likely that similar patterns of abuse will occur before the new date set for the Commonwealth meeting,” Mudge said. “Locking up marginalized people and mistreating them just because authorities believe they tarnish their country’s image violates human dignity, and Commonwealth leaders should not tolerate this.”
For more information, read the HRW’s full article on Rwanda.