Justice Remains Elusive For Liberia’s Sexual Minorities
Monrovia – It was a noisy Friday evening in November 2016 when a group of men banged on Johnson Browne’s door.
Report by Gboko Stewart in Collaboration with New Narratives
Browne, not his real name, had just invited a friend into his rented house in a suburb outside the capital and, out of an abundance of caution, he locked the door.
“Usually when I’m home, people walk into my room,” said the 32-year-old. “So, I decided to lock my door after my friend arrived.”
That decision would turn out to be disastrous for the two men. Some members of the community, suspicious that Browne was gay, assumed they were engaging in sexual acts.
“Two guys came and pounded heavily on my door. Luckily, I had strong iron behind the door and the door did not open,” Browne said.
Browne went outside. “I met two guys who had already called a crowd of people.” Browne said they were friends within the community he lived. He remembered the mob shouting “faggots”. Some were armed with sticks and rocks.
Angered and afraid, Browne went to the nearby police depot at Vai Town. But when the two officers turned up to Browne’s house the crowd prevented the officers from arresting the attackers.
One of the men then attacked Browne, he claimed. “He hit me with a stick on my head,” he recalled. “When I turned to inquire why he hit me, he said he saw my friend and me kissing. Just in that time, someone asked me to leave for my own safety.” Browne’s friend had already escaped to safety.
Browne then went to the bigger zonal police depot in Congo Town. “They told me they didn’t have manpower. I saw more than ten men [officers] who were there and not doing anything.” He was later given a case number and asked to return when more police were available.
Liberian law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults. Articles 14.74, 14.79 and 50.7 [of the Penal Code of 1976] consider “voluntary sodomy” as a first-degree misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to one-year imprisonment. There has been no publicized case in recent years. But Liberian’s gay community says harassment and discrimination are widespread.
Liberia’s gay community saw a glimmer of hope that they might make progress in achieving rights in 2012 when Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, announced that “gay rights are human rights” and aid would be tied to how countries treat sexual minorities.
“…being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” Secretary Clinton said.
That hope was soon dampened when President Sirleaf, in an interview with the Guardian, defended the current law which criminalizes homosexuality.
Then, Jewel Howard Taylor, former first lady, Senator and current Vice-President, introduced a bill to make homosexuality a first-degree felony. That bill did not pass.
Sirleaf recently backpedaled on her earlier remarks in an interview alongside former Irish President Mary Robinson, saying, incorrectly, that there is no law which criminalizes homosexuality in Liberia.
According to the latest U.S. Department of State 2018 report on Liberia the country’s gay community faces extreme challenges. And with the election of President Donald trump, the US no longer exerts the moral pressure it once did.
The complicity of law enforcement officers and public officials in attacks against gay people has led the community to feel powerless and without any legal protection. Community ignorance and stigma about homosexuality has perpetuated that fear.
For example, during the 2008 Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, Prince Y. Johnson, former rebel leader, now Senator of Nimba County, bragged about his killing of famed Liberian musician, Tecumsey Roberts, during the civil conflict over allegations he was gay.
His remarks were met with a burst of laughter from the audience. Johnson was later listed by the TRC Report as a notorious perpetrator of human rights abuses with a call for his prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Danny Jones speaks in accented American English over the phone as he recalls the harassment he endured from his neighbor, Joe Yudo, an official at the Liberia Immigration Service. Danny, not his real name, lives in Paynesville. He returned home from the United States in 2006 following the inauguration of President Sirleaf to enjoy a life of quietude.
Danny said he was harassed repeatedly by Yudo who used his public office to intimidate Danny. “One night he came to my window to peep. He saw my friend and me in the room and he woke up the community, claiming he saw us having sex. I was nervous and embarrassed because those people in the community could have jumped on me and my friend and killed us.”
Danny said Yudo’s harassment continued until he decided to move.
Liberia is a signatory to many international conventions and treaties on the protection of human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Liberia’s penal code violates requirements in those conventions that signatories’ laws protect all, regardless of sexuality, according to Kutaka D. Togba, director of the human rights division within the Ministry of Justice.
Togba called for the repealing of the law which targets sexual minorities. He also said there needs to be education of law enforcement to recognize the rights of gay people. He acknowledged that there had been instances of perpetrators using the victims’ sexualities as a justification for attacks, leading the police to arrest the victims.
“We have had those cases and most times what we do is to step in and provide education to the police and get them to release the victims,” he said. “There have been cases where people’s properties were stolen and we intervened using the police to retrieve those things.”
He laments the lack of logistics to his office to function properly and effectively as a unit. Citing the lack of vehicles and an operational budget, Togba says it’s difficult to make his division presence felt in these situations.
Maxwell Monboe, Coordinator of Liberia’s Initiative for the Promotion of Rights Identity, Diversity and Equality (LIPRIDE) which covers key population, said little has been done by the government in the creation of laws to protect people of the homosexual community.
“In fact, the penal code in section 14 of the Liberian constitution violates the right of sexual minorities in the sense that [the] Sodomy law on our book is used in court to criminalize people of same-sex relationship,” he mentioned in a statement.
After his experience, Johnson felt unsafe in his home and moved out, initially to a friend’s place and later to a new apartment of his own. Browne said he was frustrated that he was unprotected by police. He would like to see justice done to deter other perpetrators.
“I really thought the police were going to arrest the people who pounded on my door and attacked me. If they can’t arrest people who violently attacked others over their sexuality, it will be just another circle.”
For Browne, Jones and countless other members of sexual minorities the foreseeable future looks bleak. The Legislature has shown no interest in changing laws, despite the requirements of international treaties. Neither have authorities been concerned with training public officials and law enforcement in protecting their rights. It is unclear what would have to happen now to bring about change.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.