A bill before Nigeria’s National Assembly to ban “same gender marriage” would expand Nigeria’s already draconian punishments for homosexual conduct and threaten all Nigerians’ rights to privacy, free expression, and association, Human Rights Watch said on Monday

In a letter to President Umaru Yar’Adua, leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate, the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission, and other national, regional, and international bodies, the group urged legislators and the president to reject the bill.

The letter urged the country’s leaders to combat an environment of stigma and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Nigerians.

On January 15, 2009, the Nigerian House of Representatives voted favourably on the second reading of a bill “to prohibit marriage between persons of same gender.”

The bill would punish people of the same sex who live together “as husband and wife or for other purposes of same sexual relationship” with up to three years of imprisonment. Anyone who “witnesses, abet[s] and aids” such a relationship could be imprisoned for up to five years.

“This bill masquerades as a law on marriage, but in fact it violates the privacy of anyone even suspected of an intimate relationship with a person of the same sex,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It also threatens basic freedoms by punishing human rights defenders who speak out for unpopular causes.”

The House of Representatives referred the bill to its committees on Human Rights, Justice, and Women Affairs, which will hold a joint public hearing on it. If the House approves the bill on a third reading, it must then be approved by the Senate and President Yar’Adua.

Members of the House of Representatives reportedly justified the bill by citing links between “sodomy” and HIV and AIDS, making clear that they see the marriage ban as a deterrent to homosexual conduct, though research shows that HIV is most-often spread through heterosexual conduct in Nigeria.

Article 214 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act already provides up to 14 years of imprisonment for anyone who “has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature.”

In its letter, Human Rights Watch pointed to grave human rights issues raised by the proposed law:

  • The evident intent of the new bill is to extend the already-existing penalties for homosexual conduct.

  • Criminalising “living together as husband and wife” further expands these punishments. They would no longer be limited to sexual acts between people of the same sex, but would potentially include mere cohabitation or any suspected “intimate relationship” between members of the same sex. Far less evidence would be needed for conviction, and prejudice and suspicion would be a basis for arrests. This threatens all Nigerians’ right to private life.
  • The proposed five-year sentence for those who “abet” a same-sex relationship is greater than the punishment stipulated in the bill for those who enter into a “same gender marriage.” This provision could be used to punish anyone who gives any help or advice to a suspected “same gender” couple – anyone who rents them an apartment, tells them their rights, or approves of their relationships. Advocates, civil society organisations, and human rights defenders would be ready targets.

  • Under the bill’s provisions, anyone – whether Nigerian or foreign – who enters into a “same gender marriage,” or simply has a “same gender relationship” in another country and wishes to continue it in Nigeria, could be subject to criminal penalties when they set foot on Nigerian soil. This provides the state with even broader powers to invade people’s privacy.

Similar concerns were raised in a joint public statement issued by the Nigerian Bar Association Human Rights Institute, Nigerian nongovernmental organisations, and Amnesty International.

“This legislation would allow the state to invade people’s homes and bedrooms and investigate their private lives, and it would criminalise the work of human rights defenders,” said Gagnon. “It is not a ban on marriage, but an assault on basic rights.”

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