LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Arrests have spread across Nigeria as dozens more people perceived to be gay have been rounded up and questioned, activists said Friday, describing another wave of police attention unleashed by a wide-ranging new anti-gay law.
In the last few days, more than 30 people have been arrested, with an increasing number coming from the west African country's Christian southern states. Until Goodluck Jonathan signed the law more than a week ago, prosecution of gay people had largely been centered on the predominantly Muslim north, where gays have long been punished under Shariah law.
"The arrests are all over. It's no longer just in the north," said Ifeanyi Kelly Orazulike, executive director of the Nigeria-based International Center for Advocacy on Right to Health. "Police are not telling us what the charges are, and people are scared."
He said that at this point, some of those arrested may have been released, but not without being forced to give names of others who may eventually be implicated.
Nigeria's more than 160 million people are almost equally divided between the north and mainly Christian south, with a widespread condemnation of homosexuality throughout the country. Gay people can get lynched and beaten to death, or legally executed by stoning for the offense under the Islamic Shariah law that prevails in nine of its 36 states.
Sodomy was already illegal, but the bill signed into law Jan. 7 bans all gay associations and gay marriage, with penalties of up to 14 years' imprisonment for marriage. Arrests had been made before, but not at this magnitude, Orazulike said.
"It's obviously the law," he said. "People want to leave and you don't blame them. They are asking us about the exit choices."
Orazulike made clear that his organization isn't in a position to help them flee, but that they can provide advice and counseling.
He said 12 people have been arrested in Oyo state in the southwest, six in Imo state in the southeast, eight in central Abuja and six in Anambra state in the southeast since Jan. 15.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that 38 people had been arrested in the northern state of Bauchi since Christmas, and some have been charged in court with belonging to a gay organization. Amnesty said 10 people have been detained since Monday in four southern states.
In the first conviction of a gay man since the law was signed, Mubarak Ibrahim was found guilty of sodomy and whipped 20 times Thursday in a northern Nigerian Shariah court. He was among 12 men — 11 Muslims and one Christian — who have been arrested by police since Christmas for belonging to a gay club.
The speed of the arrests is worrying, said Andre Banks of All Out, a global gay rights organization.
"The key question is who is calling for these arrests, and who, if anybody, has the ability to stop them," Banks said. "Rarely do you see a bill executed with such efficiency."
The law has brought widespread condemnation from abroad — including the U.S., Britain, Canada, the European Union and the United Nations. Banks called on the international community to intervene, and for world leaders to put pressure on Nigeria.
"We have to remember this is a bill that doesn't just affect gay Nigerians," he said. "There is obviously a minority community that is affected...But anyone could be perceived to be gay."
Banks said the law could lead to blackmail, extortion and other dangers where accusations of being gay could get anyone arrested.