Africa

Ivory Coast: No anti-gay law, but 3 months in prison anyway

Two gay men in relatively tolerant Ivory Coast served a three-month  sentence in a rural prison despite the fact that the country has no anti-gay law. The situation highlights the limitations of city-based LGBT rights activism in Ivory Coast and elsewhere in Africa, journalist Robbie Corey-Boulet writes in The Guardian.

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

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

Rural Sassandra is an eight-hour drive west from urban Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Map courtesy of Vevesworld.com)

Rural Sassandra is an eight-hour drive west from urban Abidjan, Ivory Coast. (Map courtesy of Vevesworld.com)

Excerpts from the Guardian article:

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:

Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT program for Human Rights Watch

Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT program for Human Rights Watch

“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 [Jan. 25], 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 it’s me who takes care of her. But because of my nature, I am stuck here and I can’t take care of her,” he said.

“We were convicted in an unjust manner. If there is no law that that condemns it, I don’t 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 government’s rigorous application of its anti-gay law, local groups still have only a faint idea of what goes on outside Douala and Yaoundé.

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 Coast’s 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.

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

Agence Ivoirienne de presse used this stock image of two gay men to illustrate its report on the arrests in Sassandra, Ivory Coast.

Agence Ivoirienne de presse used this stock image of two gay men to illustrate its report on the arrests in Sassandra, Ivory Coast.

‘Public indecency’

According to the November report from the Ivoirian Press Agency, the men were initially sentenced to an 18-month sentence. That report contained a different description of the men’s arrest, which was echoed in a Jan. 26 article in International Business Times:

Yann, 31, and Abdoul, 19, who are openly gay, were arrested in October last year after Abdoul’s uncle, who walked in on the pair having sex, filed a complaint for “public indecency” with the gendarmerie in the south-western seaside town of Sassandra.

During their appearance in court, the young men admitted the facts, stating that they had been lovers for a long time and that they did not see how their conduct constituted an offence.

The prosecutor, however, accused the pair of an “unnatural and indecent act”, arguing that sexual intercourse between people of the same sex should be “sanctioned”.

‘Modesty and discretion’

The Ivoirian Press Agency cited examples of earlier tolerance toward gay men in the Sassandra area:

In the department of Sassandra, there are several homosexuals who are well known to the local population. In 2015, a gay couple living in the village of Lebloko, while arguing with each other, found themselves at the police station, where one of the lovers opposed a “divorce.” The police then reminded them of what they were exposing themselves to, and asked them for “more modesty and discretion” and to settle their dispute amicably, like  a family.

For more information, read the full articles in The Guardian and in International Business Times.

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