Clinic Report Backs Human Rights of Gay Men in Nigeria

Students Contribute Research to New ABA, Clooney Foundation Report
Arrested Nigerian men

Fifty-seven Nigerian men were charged with violating the country’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Illustration by Warren Craghead

December 8, 2020

It would be unthinkable for police to round people up, torture them and put them on trial because of their sexual orientation in the United States. But in Nigeria, this is reality.

The International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law recently produced research that could help protect gay men, and others suspected of being LGBTQ, from being persecuted in the West African country.

Law students worked with the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights and the Clooney Foundation for Justice Initiative to produce a TrialWatch report, which was released in November. Based on its letter grade system, the report gives Nigeria a “D” for court fairness, with an “F” being the worst.

For its part, the clinic looked extensively at the country’s legal and institutional history regarding the human rights problem. Of primary concern is the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, which former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan signed into law in 2014. The law’s language “prohibits a marriage contract or civil union entered into between the persons of same sex.” The penalty under the act, which also forbids gay meeting places and organizations, is up to 14 years in prison.

“Our report urges Nigeria to repeal the SSMPA — that’s our ultimate goal,” said Professor Camilo Sánchez, the clinic’s director. Students in his yearlong clinic gain first-hand experience in human rights advocacy, working in partnership with nongovernmental organizations, human rights practitioners and law firms in the United States and abroad.

A group of young men arrested in a raid of a hotel in 2018, whose cases were combined and entered into Nigeria’s federal court system in 2019 as Nigeria v. Egbeda 57, looked to be the first attempt to apply the act. Due to non-appearances by the prosecution and other delays, however, the Federal High Court in Lagos struck out the case completely in late October.

Clinic students Hamna Ahmad ’20 and Stephen Wald ’22 helped detail human rights abuses of suspected gay Nigerians both before the trial, noting instances of extrajudicial violence against them, and during the criminal justice process. Ahmad constructed a chronological narrative of the legal plight of the accused men, 10 of whom fled prosecution, leaving 47 to stand trial.

The final report points to warrantless arrests, unlawful detention and apparent violations of regional international prohibitions on torture, and calls into question whether the defendants received a fair process in court.

“I read every single one of the men’s sworn statements that they gave to the court, and every statement was full of disbelief and hardship,” Ahmad said. “This motivated me to work harder, and helped me remember that international legal norms are important tools for lawyers across the world.”

Even though the charges against the men were ultimately dropped, nothing prevents authorities from bringing similar charges against them, or others in similar circumstances, in the future, since the law remains in effect.

In addition, the men have publicly discussed the repercussions they’ve suffered in the community: lost jobs, ostracization from family members and public scorn. Police paraded the men in public following their arrests.

“The defendants’ lives have been irrevocably impacted,” Sánchez said. “We call on Nigeria to take steps to ensure that, where possible, harms are mitigated or remedied. In particular, the authorities should investigate the defendants’ allegations of torture.”

Ahmad and Wald said the clinic experience was meaningful to them beyond just building their research skills.

“As the SSMPA faces constitutional challenges in Nigerian appeals courts, it is incredible to think that my work with the clinic will support the efforts to strike down this homophobic law,” Wald said.

Ahmad added, “It would be easy to dismiss the case of the Egbeda 57 as something that only happens in a country in Africa, but this case is a warning of what can happen when leaders eschew legal norms in order to make performative political statements. It can happen anywhere.”

The ABA Center for Human Rights has monitored trials in more than 60 countries, providing resources and pro bono assistance to rights defenders. The Clooney Foundation for Justice's TrialWatch program reviews the fairness of trials of “vulnerable people around the world” in accordance with international human rights standards.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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