LAGOS, Nigeria -- First, police targeted the gay men, then tortured them into naming dozens of others who now are being hunted down, human rights activists said Tuesday, warning that such persecution will rise under a new Nigerian law.
The men's alleged crime? Belonging to a gay organization. Punishment can be as much as 10 years in jail under the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, which has elicited global condemnation for criminalizing gay marriage, gay organizations and anyone working with or promoting them.
There were varying accounts of how many arrests were made in Nigeria's Bauchi state, and a local law enforcement official denied that anyone was tortured. Nevertheless, the aggressive police action shows that Africa's most populous country is attempting to enforce anti-gay measures that are becoming increasingly common throughout the continent.
In this instance, authorities responded to an unfounded rumor that the United States had paid gay activists $20 million to promote same-sex marriage in this highly religious and conservative nation, according to an AIDS counselor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that he would be arrested.
An officer pretending to be a gay man then joined a group being counseled on AIDS, according to Dorothy Aken'Ova, executive director of Nigeria's International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights.
Ms. Aken'Ova said police detained four gay men over the Christmas holidays and tortured them until they named others allegedly belonging to a gay organization. She gave no details of what she called torture, but the AIDS counselor said the four men were brutally beaten until they gave up names.
Police have now arrested 38 men and are looking for 168 others, according to Ms. Aken'Ova, whose organization is helping to provide legal services for the men. The AIDS counselor said he has helped secure bail for some of the 38 detainees. They both said dozens of homosexuals have fled Bauchi in recent days.
Chairman Mustapha Baba Ilela of Bauchi state Shariah Commission, which oversees regulation of Islamic law, said 11 gay men have been arrested over the past two weeks. He said community members helped "fish out" the suspects, and that "we are on the hunt for others."
Bauchi state has both a Western-style penal code and Shariah, or Islamic law, implemented to different degrees in nine of Nigeria's 36 states. About half of the nation's more than 175 million people are Muslims, the other half Christians.
Mr. Ilela said all 11 arrested -- 10 Muslims and a non-Muslim -- signed confessions that they belonged to a gay organization, but some retracted the statements in court. He denied that any force was involved. "They have never been tortured, they have never been beaten, they have never been intimidated," he said.
Shawn Gaylord of Human Rights First, a Washington-based organization, said he was alarmed by reports of torture and arrests. "When discriminatory bills like this are passed, we are always concerned that they set the stage for violence and ill-treatment in society, even when they are not enforced," he said in a statement. "But the fact that this law is being enforced so quickly and forcefully demonstrates the full extent of Nigeria's human rights crisis."
Olumide Makanjuola said lawyers for his Initiative For Equality in Nigeria are backing lawsuits by several homosexuals whom police arrested without cause. He said police regularly and illegally inspect gay suspects' cell phones, then send text messages to lure others.
Then the men or women are told that they will be charged, and their sexual preferences exposed, unless they pay bribes. "Some pay 5,000, some 10,000 naira ($30 to $60). Even though they have done nothing wrong, people are scared, people are afraid that even worse things will happen," Mr. Makanjuola said in a recent interview.
The new law was passed by the Nigerian Parliament last year but not signed by President Goodluck Jonathan until last week, when he did so quietly and without fanfare. His office confirmed Monday that the Nigerian leader had signed it.