A gay man’s story of persecution, fear, isolation and imprisonment in Gambia and Nigeria

March 12, 2015 /LGBT News


Editor's note:

The information above is presented “as is” and “as available”, and we expressly disclaim any liability for errors and omissions regarding it. 

The LGBT News welcomes letters from readers for possible publication. Letters should be no more than 300 words. We are also interested in your views on local, state, national and international LGBTQ issues. Columns usually run 500 to 700 words. Email your letter/column (with photos where possible) at info@lgbt-news.com

To gain exposure for your LGBTQ-related events, services or products, please check our Submit a press release section.





My name is David Berihun Kohen and here is my story.

I was born on November 11, 1997 in Tortola, British Virgin Islands (stateless) during vacation trips of my parents. My families are Beta Israel/Ethiopian Jews from Gondar regions of Ethiopia.

My middle class families for generations lived in North and North-Western Ethiopia in more than 500 small villages spread over a wide territory among populations that were Muslims and predominantly Christians. Mostly concentrated in the area around Lake Tana and North of its in the Tigray regions; among the Wolqoyit, Shire and Tselement and Amhare Regions of Gondar regions; among the Semien province, Dembia, Segelt, Belesa and Quare.

In the late 20th century, our Jewish communities made contacts around the world with other Jewish communities, followed by a massive aliya to Israel – under the law of return between 1979 – 1990. At that point in time, my young parents were faced with two most important decisions (considering at that time secured a professional cooking job aboard a cruise lines)
(a) Make Aliya from Ethiopia to Israel
(b) Work – travel aboard a cruise line and make aliya at a later date.
My parents decided to work – travel aboard the cruise vessels. But not long after that they were faced with challenges of raising a family aboard a cruise lines. They abandoned the ship and headed to Gambia for a lucrative private tutoring job.

Gambia

Gambia is an enclave country in West Africa mostly surrounded by Senegal with a short strip of its coastline bordered by the Atlantic Ocean at its western end. It is the smallest country on mainland Africa. Its area is 10,689 square kilometers (4,127 square miles) with a population of 1,882,450 at the April 15th 2013 census. Banjul is the Gambian capital, and the largest cities are Serekunda and Brikama.

My parents reside in Banjul, providing private tutoring to some of Gambian most richest families. On November 1997, my father took my pregnant mother on a short trip to the Caribbean Island of British Virgin Island. I was born November 11, 1997 in Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Since none of my parents hold Belonger status of British Virgin Islands, I was not eligible for citizenship. In essence I was born stateless until I derived citizenship through Gambia.  Raised in Banjul, Gambia along with my sibling. We were all home schooled but unlike my siblings I graduated at the age of 14 years through St. Augustine’s Senior Secondary School (All Boys School) Banjul North, Gambia in 2011 with a presidential scholarship as a gifted student to read medicine at School of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, University of Gambia, Serekunda, Gambia. However, that dream never came to pass – because I was gay.

My Persecution in Gambia

Growing up gay in Gambia is the most difficult ever – I officially came out to my closest friends and family in February 2006 but I come out a little more every day – it’s a journey. I feel like my sexuality has unfolded slowly, starting from the time I was home schooled. I remember playing with my best friend and how it felt to kiss him when we intended to be husband and wife. I remember getting dressed in gym with my home schooled classmates and letting my eyes linger on their bodies for too long and then feeling like something was wrong with me. I remember having a 15 years old boy friend, who was gay, when I was 10 years old and how comfortable and right it felt to be with another man. For a time I thought I was gay too but somewhere deep inside it didn’t feel right – it’s still a journey. And now at 18 years old, after I realized that I had more than “friendly” feeling towards one of my closest friends, who came out a week before I did, I know that I am gay.

I now accept that fact that I am a man who loves other men. I am gay and its okay. Coming out openly is supposed to be a beautiful thing – a self realization and personal fulfillment but not in Gambia. When you are gay or lesbian in Gambia, you are facing life in prison.

Examples in Gambia

LGBT persons in Gambia face legal challenges not experienced by non LGBT residents – both male and female same, same-sex activity being illegal in Gambia.

The Gambia Criminal Code, as amended by the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act, 2009, provides as follows:

Section 144. Unnatural Offenses
1.     Any person who –
a)             Has carnal knowledge of  any person against the order of nature; or   
b)            Permits a male person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature; is guilty of felony, and is liable to imprisonment for a term of 14 years.
2.     In this section – “Carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature “includes
a)     Carnal knowledge of the person through the anus or the mouth of the person;
b)    Inserting any object or thing into the vulva or the anus of the person for the purpose of simulating sex; and
c)     Committing any other homosexual act with the person.

Section 147 states that if a man commits an “act of gross indecency” with another man, he is liable to imprisonment for a term of five years. The same applies to females who commit “acts of gross indecency” with other females. The term ‘act of gross indecency’ includes any homosexual act.

Gambia President Yahya Jammeh said in May 2008 that laws “stricter than those in Iran” would soon be introduced and vowed to “cut off the head” of any homosexual caught in the country. On May 15, 2008 Jammeh gave homosexuals 24 hours to leave the country. He also commanded “all those who harbor such individuals to kick them out of their compounds, noting that a mass patrol will be conducted on the instructions of the (Inspector General of Police)--- and the director of the Gambia Immigration Department to weed bad elements in society”. He said, “Any hotel, lodge or motel that lodges this kind of individual, will be closed down, because this act is unlawful. We are in a Muslim dominated country and I will not and shall never accept such individuals in this country”.

In June 2008, two Spanish men alleged to be gay, Pere Joan, 56 and Joan Monpserrat Rosa, 54, were arrested by Gambia police and detained at Koto police station.

On 23 December 2008, Frank Boers, a 79 – year old man from the Netherlands, was arrested at Banjul’s international airport when officials found him in possession of pornography, including nude pictures of himself and some Gambian men. A Banjul court found Boers guilty of indecency with those men and sentenced him to pay 100,000 Gambian delasis (Euros 2,500) in lieu of a two year prison sentence.

On 10 April 2012, a court remanded 18 of us alleged homosexuals (16 from Senegal, 1 from the Gambia (David Berihun Kohen), and 1 from Nigeria. We were arrested on April 9 2012 at a bar in the Tourism Development Area. We were “charged with indecent practice among themselves at a Public Place”. According to the police testimony in court in July 2012, the arrests were made because we were wearing women’s clothes, carrying handbags, and “walking like ladies”. On August 2012, the prosecutor dropped all charges for lack of adequate evidence in the case. As a result of this incidence my scholarship to medical school was also revoked.

AMENDMENT TO GAMBIAN CRIMINAL CODE 2014

Criminal code of the Gambian was recently amended again that creates a broad and vague offence of “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by life imprisonment. The amendment to the criminal code was approved by the National Assembly and signed into law by the President on 9 October 2014. It targets among others, so-called “serial offenders” (meaning individuals with a previous conviction for homosexuality), could be imprisonment for life.

So I decided to depart somewhere – anywhere but Gambia. That was how I came to Nigeria.

PERSECUTION/LEGAL TROUBLES IN NIGERIA

Nigeria is often referred to as the "Giant of Africa", owing to its large population and economy. With approximately 174 million inhabitants, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the seventh most populous country in the world. Nigeria has one of the largest populations of youth in the world. The country is inhabited by over 500 ethnic groups, of which the three largest are the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. Regarding religion, Nigeria is divided roughly in half between Christians, who live mostly in the southern and central parts of the country, and Muslims, concentrated mostly in the northern and southwestern regions. A minority of the population practice religions indigenous to Nigeria, such as those native to Igbo and Yoruba peoples.

As a teenager, it’s difficult to travel to Nigeria from Gambia but I got a surprise help from a good Samaritan who helped me escape from Gambia so I can stay with my uncle who teaches at the Faculty of Science, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi State, Nigeria. Less than five months later, we were arrested by Bauchi State Sharia Commission (State Penal Court Charges – which carry a death penalty) and aiding and supporting gay organization (federal charges) which carry 10 – 14 years in federal prison. We were detained, beaten and arraigned before Bauchi State Sharia Commission Judge in the morning of January 18th 2014 in Bauchi State, Nigeria. Most of this were minors and have no legal representations. Various sentences were handed down by the judge which including anywhere from flogging, 2 years sentences but I was detained under special circumstances as a foreigner. The evidence against me was overwhelming – computers, cell phones, pictures, newsletters were collected from my apartment. Some of us were released, while others went to prison, and I was handed over to the Nigeria Police Force and subsequently transferred from Bauchi state to the care of Assistant Commissioner of Police Mr. Rasak Abdullraheem, Criminal Investigation Department, Airport Police Command, Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja Lagos, on February 10 2014.

Gambia Embassy was notified of my arrest, detention and charges. The Gambian authorities requested that I should be extradited from Nigeria to Gambia so I can be tried under Gambian Laws as an aggravated homosexual behavior. On March 5th 2014 I was granted bail and released. Court date was set March 17th 2014 for extradition hearing and consolidation of charges.

On March 17th 2014 I absconded. I skipped bail for my safety rather than face life imprisonment in Gambia. I went into hiding – running to safety.

Anti-gay and lesbian legislations in both Gambia and Nigeria violate my fundamental human rights – among them the right to privacy, to freedom from discrimination, from arbitrary arrest and detention. It adds to the stigma, hate and death threats I face every day just because I am different. I believe governments have a sacred duty to protect people from prejudice, not to add to it.


My name is David Berihun Kohen and that was my story. A story of systemic persecution, of mistreatment, sufferings, harassment, fear, isolation and imprisonment just because I am different.


Editor's note:

The information above is presented “as is” and “as available”, and we expressly disclaim any liability for errors and omissions regarding it. 

The LGBT News welcomes letters from readers for possible publication. Letters should be no more than 300 words. We are also interested in your views on local, state, national and international LGBTQ issues. Columns usually run 500 to 700 words. Email your letter/column (with photos where possible) at info@lgbt-news.com


To gain exposure for your LGBTQ-related events, services or products, please check our Submit a press release section.


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