Advocates say police are making a show of anti-LGBTQ crackdown after second publicized raid in three months
Dozens of young people in Nigeria were paraded in front of news cameras and accused of "holding homosexual birthdays" after they were arrested at a party on Saturday night.
Those arrested are out on bail, and it's not yet clear whether charges have been laid. But Nigerian human rights lawyer Chizelu Emejulu says the allegations alone are enough to upend their lives, cost them their families and jobs, and put them at risk of violence.
"These arrests are always, always devastating to the victims, for the people involved," Emejulu, founder of the Nigerian LGBTQ rights group Minority Watch, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.
It's the second raid targeting an LGBTQ event in the last three months, and rights groups say it's part of an escalating police crackdown since the country passed a wide-ranging anti-LGBTQ law in 2014.
Same-sex marriage law has broad scope
The country's paramilitary agency, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), announced Monday that it had arrested 59 men and 17 women at a party in the northern Gombe state.
"These are very young people," Emejulu said. "People in their 20s — I think the oldest of them will be in the in their 30s."
NSCDC spokesperson Buhari Saad said the agency received a tip about a party being attended by "homosexuals and pimps," and moved in.
The NSCDC also accused those arrested of "intention to hold a same-sex marriage." In a statement, the paramilitary group said the party's organizer had planned to wed another man, who was still at large, before officers raided the party.
"There was no wedding, only birthday," the party's organizer said in a broadcast aired by local media.
Also arrested were the event's photographer and DJ, Ochuko Ohimor, the suspects' lawyer, told The Associated Press.
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While having a "homosexual birthday" is not, in and of itself, a crime in Nigeria, Emejulu says the country's 2014 Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act is so broad that it makes any kind of LGBTQ gathering a target.
The law carries a prison term of 10 years for those convicted of operating or participating in "gay clubs, societies or organizations" or making a "public show" of "same-sex amorous" relationships.
Anyone convicted of entering into a same-sex marriage contract or civil union faces up to 14 years imprisonment.
'Gross violation of human rights'
Isa Sanusi, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, called the latest raid proof of an "an uptick in this trend" of mass arrests targeting LGBTQ people, calling it a "witch hunt and gross violation of human rights."
In August, 60 people were arrested at what police deemed a gay wedding in Nigeria's Delta state. Last year, 19 people in their 20s were arrested for allegedly attending a same-sex marriage in Kano.
"The Nigerian authorities must stop these humiliating raids and misusing laws to harass and arrest people accused of same-sex activity," Sanusi said in an Amnesty press release.
"No one should be targeted and arrested because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity."
Emejulu says he believes these raids and mass arrests are a way for Nigerian police to put on a show so people won't notice they are "failing in their duty to protect the citizens."
"This could be a way of showing us that they are working," he said. "And that is why each time these arrests happen, they do a public parade — they are called in the media and parade these people."
The displays are occurring, he says, despite a ruling by a Nigerian high court last year that pretrial media parades violate the nation's constitution.
Emejulu isn't representing those arrested in Gombe this week, but he was involved inthe defence of 57 men arrested at a hotel in Lagos for same-sex displays of affection in 2018. A local court dismissed the case in 2020 because of what it described as the "lack of diligent prosecution" after police failed to present some witnesses.
Even though that case was thrown out, he says the men who were arrested have faced irreparable harm.
"Many of them lost their jobs. Many of them could not go back to their jobs. Many of them could not go back to their families," he said.
Chris Agiriga, who was among those arrested in 2018, told Reuters in 2020 that he was kicked out of his home after appearing in a police lineup on TV.
"Everyone in the area knew about it," he said. "I brought shame upon the whole family."
Many of those arrested in Delta in August, Emejulu says, have also been kicked out of their homes and forced to live in safehouses run by LGBTQ organizations.
"Basically, these people, their lives are shattered," he said.
With files from The Associated Press and Reuters. Interview with Chizelu Emejulu produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle and Chloe Shantz-Hilkes
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