Ivory Coast officials refuse to explain why two gay men were jailed

Acitivists say if indecency law was applied it would be first known instance of it being used to jail gay people

Authorities in the Ivory Coast have refused to explain why two gay men were arrested and jailed in a country that does not criminalise same-sex acts, and is widely regarded as a beacon of tolerance for sexual minorities.

Yann, 31, and Abdoul, 19, are openly gay but deny any romantic relationship. They were arrested in October in a village in southwestern Ivory Coast, apparently for public indecency.

Though prosecutors have declined to confirm the charge against them, activists say if the indecency law was used it would be the first known instance of the provision being used to jail gay people in the country.

Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT rights programme at Human Rights Watch, said: A vague law, arbitrary arrests and an unexplained conviction: this is completely contrary to the rule of law.

The government needs to come clean and offer an explanation to these two young men who have spent three months in jail for no apparent reason.

In an interview at the Sassandra prison two weeks before their release on Wednesday, Yann said the case had upended his life and prevented him from caring for his elderly mother.

I am the only son of my mother. My father is dead, so its me who takes care of her. But because of my nature, I am stuck here and I cant take care of her, he said.

We were convicted in an unjust manner. If there is no law that that condemns it, I dont understand how we could have been convicted.

The case highlights the limited geographic reach of many gay rights groups in the region. In Ivory Coast and neighbouring countries, most activism takes place in major cities and there is often little contact with more remote areas.

In Cameroon, where activists have long documented the governments rigorous application of its anti-gay law, local groups still have only a faint idea of what goes on outside Douala and Yaound.

This divide is reinforced by the fact that sexual minorities in rural areas can feel alienated by their urban counterparts use of western campaign tactics and terminology, such as the term LGBT.

News of the Sassandra conviction only reached activists in Abidjan, Ivory Coasts largest city and commercial centre, after a local press agency ran a story about it in November. By that point, the conviction had already been handed down.

By that time, Yann and Abdoul, who had no lawyer at the trial, had decided to forgo an appeal, fearing the process would extend well beyond their three-month sentence.

Abidjan,
Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Many same-sex rights groups are located in the countrys cities. Photograph: Alamy

Local activists, who have limited funding, could afford to make the eight-hour road trip to Sassandra only once during the mens three-month incarceration, meaning the pair were largely left to fend for themselves in the prison system.

During the interview two weeks ago, guards blocked a reporter from entering Sassandra prison, and Yann and Abdoul said they were crammed into small cells with 80 other inmates. A tally on a chalkboard near the prison entrance said 485 inmates were at the facility, well over its official capacity of 300.

Now that they have been released, the pair plan to go to Abidjan to try to rebuild their lives. But while the city is often viewed by gay west Africans as a relative haven, with an impressive network of gay bars and drag shows, security is hardly guaranteed.

There is no legal protection for sexual minorities, and incidents of discrimination including physical assaults are common, activists say.

Last year, several gay men were beaten and forced to leave their homes after the US embassy in Abidjan posted a photo of them signing a condolence book for victims of the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

ADO Jr, president of Lesbian Life Association, a local group closely following the case, said the Sassandra incident had also receivedsensationalist coverage in Ivorian newspapers, potentially endangering Yann and Abdoul.

One article, in the Soir Info, contained fabricated quotes purportedly from the two men that they had sex in public.

This case caused a lot of buzz here, ADO Jr said, so they might feel they need to leave the country.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/26/ivory-coast-officials-refuse-explain-gay-men-jailed-same-sex-relationships

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