Ivory Coast: Mob attacks gay rights group office

By ROBBIE COREY-BOULET

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) - An angry mob "ransacked" the headquarters of Ivory Coast's most prominent gay rights organization, an official said Jan. 27, underscoring the dangers facing such groups in Africa even in the few countries where homosexual acts are not crimes.

The attack occurred after multiple days of anti-gay protests in Ivory Coast, a country generally viewed as moderate and sometimes considered a safe haven for homosexuals fleeing persecution elsewhere.

On Saturday afternoon, nearly 200 people stormed the offices of Alternative Cote d'Ivoire in Abidjan, the commercial capital, flinging stones to shatter windows and stealing computers, said Claver Toure, the group's executive director.

Others heaved sacks of garbage over the property's exterior walls and strew trash and broken glass at the entrance. Signs hung on walls demanded "Stop the homos!" and "Pedes get out!" The word "pede" is short for pedophile and is commonly used in West Africa to insult gay men.

"Everything they could take was taken, and the rest was broken," Toure said, adding that a private security guard was hospitalized with wounds to his face.

U.S. Ambassador Terence P. McCulley said he was "shocked and saddened" by the attack, in a statement posted Monday to the embassy's Facebook page.

"Even if one is not in agreement with the point of view of an organization or its people, we have an obligation in a democracy to support the right of people to organize and express themselves," he said. "I hope that Ivorians will understand that these attacks are not consonant with democratic values."

Toure criticized what he described as a deliberately slow response by security forces, saying police did not arrive until the French ambassador contacted government officials. Ultimately, he said, about 10 officers came with a half dozen U.N. peacekeepers.

"When we call, the police need to come right away and protect us because we are Ivorians," Toure said.

Interior Minister spokesman Bazoumana Coulibaly said the government was not prepared to comment because it was still collecting information.

In a statement Friday, the Ireland-based human rights organization Front Line Defenders detailed what it described as "coordinated" attacks against Toure's group last week. It had warned that "rumors are circulating that a more virulent attack is envisioned" for Saturday.

On Jan. 20, neighbors gathered outside Toure's home to chant anti-gay slogans and issue death threats against those inside, Front Line Defenders said. Two days later, a mob targeted Alternative's headquarters, placing signs demanding that the organization leave.

It was not clear what prompted the attack against Alternative, located in an upscale neighborhood.

Local media reports quoted residents last week expressing fear that the presence of a gay rights organization would jeopardize their children's safety - highlighting the widespread belief throughout Africa that gay people target children for recruitment.

Toure said his landlord confronted him on Jan. 5 after neighbors complained that more than 20 people were staying in his home and that "condoms could be found throughout the neighborhood each morning" - accusations Toure denied.

The Ivory Coast attacks come amid an increasingly hostile environment for sexual minorities in Africa, most notably in Nigeria, where President Goodluck Jonathan earlier this month signed a law banning gay associations and gay marriage. Dozens have been arrested recently throughout Nigeria since then.

In the northern city of Bauchi, protesters tried to attack seven men accused of belonging to a gay organization, demanding they be stoned to death.

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has voiced opposition to a bill approved by lawmakers last month calling for life imprisonment for some cases of homosexuality, though parliament still could muster enough support to make it law.

Ivory Coast is generally seen as more moderate on the issue, and Alternative has worked increasingly closely with the government on programs to combat HIV/AIDS.

But Matthew Thomann, an anthropologist at American University who has worked extensively with Abidjan's gay groups, said it would be "naive and dangerous" to portray Ivory Coast as an oasis of freedom.

"We must remind ourselves that the lack of anti-gay legislation in a country like Ivory Coast is not the same as LGBT individuals having actual legal protection or recourse when victimized," Thomann said of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender minorities. "There are high levels of impunity for attacks such as those experienced by Mr. Toure and Alternative."

Human Rights Watch said the attacks should not go unpunished, noting the attacks came "despite several warnings to Ivorian authorities of escalating threats."

"The authorities must act swiftly to protect the activists and their supporters from any further violence and to hold accountable those who have led the recent mob attacks."

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