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Anti-gay threats, attacks disrupt AIDS fight in Sierra Leone

Page 1 story about George Freeman in the newspaper Exclusive of Sierra Leone.

Page 1 story about George Freeman in the newspaper Exclusive of Sierra Leone forced Freeman to leave the country.

DEATH THREATS, ATTACK, AND THEN ESCAPE

Until they had to flee the country to save their lives, George Freeman, Denzil Kargbo and Ephraim Bernard Wilson worked to halt the spread of AIDS in Sierra Leone.

They worked for years to educate LGBT people in Sierra Leone about the dangers of HIV / AIDS, but they had to stop that work when newspapers published their pictures and labeled them as homosexuals.  Freeman was ambushed in his car by men on motorbikes who tried to kill him.

They fled to safety in Spain and still want to continue fighting AIDS in Sierra Leone. But they can only do that from Spain by consulting with colleagues who have not been outed by the press, and perhaps through video conferences.

This is their story.

Logo of Pride Equality of SIerra Leone

Logo of Pride Equality of SIerra Leone

Freeman, age 26; Kargbo, 25; and Wilson, 24, are officers of the non-profit organization Pride Equality, which was founded in 2007 under the name Why Can’t We Get Married? The organization has been known by the less confrontational name Pride Equality since last year.

As AIDS activists, Freeman, Kargbo and Wilson had teamed up with a doctor at Connaught Hospital in Sierra Leone to offer an HIV prevention and counseling service, training for high-risk youth in proper use of condoms and lubricants, assistance to HIV-positive people, and treatment for AIDS patients.

As human rights activists, they also arranged for legal representation for LGBT people whose rights had been violated. They compiled a blacklist of known blackmailers and extortioners whom LGBT people should beware of.

But no more.

On May 22,  the local newspaper Exclusive ran a photo of Freeman on the front page with the headline “I Was Born Gay.”

Soon afterward, the local newspaper Africa Young Voices ran a front-page photo of the three accompanying a story about violent responses to May 17 activities in Sierra Leone in connection with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

That article mentioned the section of Freetown where Kargbo lived, along with an account of two attacks on him in 2011 that injured his leg with broken bottles and cut his back with an unidentified sharp object.

Photograph accompanying this article in Africa Young Voices article showed the faces of three activists and led them to flee the country.

Photograph accompanying this article in Africa Young Voices article showed the faces of three activists, which contributed to their decision to flee the country.

It also described an attack on Wilson by three men who warned him that homosexuality would not be tolerated in Sierra Leone and used a board with protruding nails to pound on his foot.  The same article mentioned that Wilson had been rebuked by his parents, both of them evangelical pastors, who “dis-fellowshiped him.”

The article also described a 2012 attack on Freeman by four men who injured him by chasing him and hitting him with a rock that they threw at him.

Sexual activity between men is illegal in Sierra Leone. On paper, the law provides for punishment as severe as life in prison. However, according to the US State Department 2010 Human Rights Report, the law is not enforced “due to the secrecy surrounding homosexual conduct and the tendency for communities to discriminate against individuals rather than to enforce legal codes.”

Because of the homosexuality law, Africa Young Voices said, “an overwhelming number of LGBTI people fear reporting violations to police or the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone.”

More violence and further threats followed the news articles.

Threatening letter published in Sierra Leone.

Threatening letter published in Sierra Leone.

On June 4, a letter to the editor was published in the newspaper Ariogbo that named the three men, and warned them to “desist from their evil” or face the consequences.

Freeman, Kargbo and Wilson had been active as advocates for LGBT people and against AIDS in Sierra Leone, but until this year they had been successful in keeping their photos out of local newspapers.

The Exclusive story — which was not exclusive at all — was a reprint of a photo and interview of Freeman that was published online last year in MTV Voices.

The article was “a hot topic of the day as it was the first time a local newspaper featured a gay activist speaking out openly about his sexual orientation,” Africa Review reported.

Freeman complained to the newspaper and to the Criminal Services Department with no results.

People began pointing at him in the streets.

“That’s the gay guy,” people said.

On the  day of publication, Freeman was attacked while driving by two men on motorbikes.  One blocked the way and the other broke his car window with a rock aimed at his head. The men punched him and cut his back with broken glass and metal before he escaped.

Freeman ran to a nearby police station, where police accepted his report of the crime, but did nothing further.  When Freeman returned to his car, he found what his attackers had left notes stating, “This is just the beginning” and “We know you people. We are coming after you. You bloody homosexuals.”

“It was horrible,” he said.

Death threat in Sierra Leone.

Death threat in Sierra Leone.

The three men also began receiving text messages from people who claimed government support and threatened directly, “We will kill u.”

After the publication of the African Young Voices article,  the three men left their homes and began sleeping  warily in different locations, afraid of staying too long in one place.  The homes that they abandoned were raided by would-be attackers.

They asked for help from Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Commission and from the U.S. Embassy in Freetown.  They did not receive a reply.

They asked for support from other LGBT activists in West Africa but, again, did not receive a reply.

The only messages of encouragement they received came from the LGBT rights organization Fundacion Triangulo of Spain, which had previously worked with Freeman at several conferences. That organization said it had limited resources, but would do what it could to help.

In June 5, one day after the threatening letter was published, the three men sought help from an ally at the Freetown airport and fled the country.  They arrived with little advance planning in Accra, the capital of Ghana, which is also a homophobic country. For a week, they lived on the streets of Accra, sleeping each night in an unfinished building. They remained in Accra for weeks until help arrived from Fundacion Triangulo.

On Aug. 14, they reached Spain.

They are currently staying at a hotel in Madrid, with support from Fundacion Triangulo, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Frontline Defenders (the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders).

George Freeman, Denzil Kargbo and  Bernard Wilson now spend their days in Spain, hoping to be able to return some day to Sierra Leone. (Photo courtesy of Pride Equality)

Denzil Kargbo, George Freeman, and Bernard Wilson (left to right) now spend their days in Spain, hoping to be able to return some day to Sierra Leone. (Photo courtesy of Pride Equality)

For now, they will stay in Spain as they “gauge the situation back home,” Freeman says. “We want to continue our advocacy, but for now it’s not advisable for us to go back.”

From afar, they plan to raise funds for advocates who remain in Sierra Leone, to provide lubricants for use with condoms to combat the spread of HIV, and to do whatever they can via the Internet in networking, training and doing advocacy.  Part of the training will be to educate Sierra Leonean activists about how to avoid the problems that they encountered.

An estimated 1.5 percent of adults in Sierra Leone are HIV-positive — a total of 49,000 people.  The HIV infection rate among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Sierra Leone is five times higher (7.5 percent), according to a 2011 study done by the National AIDS Control Program.  In addition, the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among MSM is about 60 percent, compared to the national average of 8 percent.

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