Arbitrary arrests and detention of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Ghana, and a proposed draconian anti-LGBT bill are causing serious economic hardship and psychological stress for LGBT people, Human Rights Watch has said.
On May 20, 2021, Ghanaian police in Ho, in the Volta region, assisted by security forces, raided and unlawfully arrested 21 people, including a technician, during a paralegal training workshop about how to document and report human rights violations against LGBT people.
They were detained for 22 days, then released on bail, and charged with unlawful assembly, a misdemeanor. The case was later dismissed for lack of evidence of a crime.
“It is shocking that the police who should be protecting Ghanaians raided a peaceful meeting, arrested the participants, and subjected them to three weeks in harsh detention conditions on a charge that never should have been brought in the first place,” said Wendy Isaack, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “If the bill before parliament becomes law, it will no doubt intensify abuse against LGBT people.”
In July, eight members of parliament introduced the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill 2021, which would proscribe and criminalize any advocacy of LGBT identity. It is an affront to dignity, privacy, and non-discrimination, and an assault on freedoms of speech, expression, association, and assembly.
The bill is currently under review by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs (Committee).
On September 15, the committee published a call for written memoranda in respect of the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill 2021, with the deadline set for September 30, 2021.
During a 13-day research mission to Ghana in July, Human Rights Watch, with support from two organizations, the Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights, Ghana (CEPEHRG) and Alliance for Dynamics Initiative (ADI), interviewed the twenty-one people who were arrested and one of six other meeting participants who escaped arrest.
Human Rights Watch also met with Cephas Essiful Ansah of Ghana’s Commission on Human Rights and Administration of Justice (CHRAJ), Chief Superintendent Jones Blantari, program coordinator of Ghana Police AIDS Control Programme, and the head of the crime unit for the Volta region, Brown Mercy Wilson.
Police erroneously justified the arrests on the grounds that the training session was “promoting homosexuality” and that the gathering was an “unlawful assembly.” Section 201 of the Ghana Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2003 (Act 646) defines an unlawful assembly as a gathering of three or more people with the intent to commit an offense, clearly not applicable in this case, Human Rights Watch said.
The activists said that eight police officers, accompanied by three journalists, forced their way into the conference room, physically assaulted some participants, and confiscated training materials, laptops, and diaries. Several heavily armed members of the Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (SWAT) were waiting outside the hostel for nurses and midwives, where the meeting was held, to assist with the arrests.
The activists were taken to the Ho police headquarters, then back to the hostel, where their rooms were searched for “evidence” that they were committing a crime.
The people arrested were held in various detention sites for 22 days, then released on bail on June 11. On August 2, Judge Felix Datsome of the Ho circuit court ruled that all charges against the 21 would be dropped, based on the attorney general’s advice that there was “insufficient evidence” to proceed with the prosecution.
However, it remains deeply concerning that the arrests were arbitrary and unlawful and the detention conditions severe, and that the arrests have had serious and continuing consequences for those arrested.
A.G., a 25-year-old lesbian, described the conditions in the cell where she was held with four other women, as being dungeonlike, with no window or light. Activists brought them the only food and drinking water she and fellow inmates received.
“My family did not visit me while I was in the cells,” she said. “I felt suicidal and really wanted to die while I was in there. Even though we are out on bail, I am still having suicidal thoughts because this is far from over.”
Lawrence Shone Edem Adjei, director of Key Watch Ghana, a Ho group that co-sponsored the meeting with One Love Sisters Ghana from Accra, told Human Rights Watch that while he was on a call outside the conference room, police officers told him that “there is an illegal activity going on here and we have come to verify.”
He said he offered one of the police officers 5,000 CEDIS [US $830] and offered himself as the organizer of the workshop for arrest if the police would leave the other participants alone, but the police officers refused.
The experience of a 24-year-old IT student and equipment technician who was among those arrested highlights the arbitrary nature of the arrests and the dangers of the proposed law, which would make any engagement with LGBT advocacy illegal.
He had been hired by the workshop organizers to fix their equipment and was waiting to be paid when the police arrived. “I tried to explain to the police, but they refused to listen to me,” he said. “I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.” He remained in detention for 22 days with the others and lost his job as a result.
A 21-year-old intersex person said she was tortured in police custody. She said she was held in a cell with male detainees for the first night because the police insisted that she is not female.
The arrests prompted an international outcry from human rights bodies. On June 4, 10 United Nations human rights experts expressed deep concern about the arrests. On June 9, Rémy Ngoy Lumbu, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR)’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders and focal point on reprisals in Africa, strongly condemned the arrests for violating freedoms of expression, assembly, and association enshrined in articles 9, 10, and 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The Ghanian parliament should ensure that any bill it passes concerning LGBT rights complies with international standards on freedom of expression. It should also reflect the 1993 Supreme Court ruling in New Patriotic Party v. Inspector General of Police that, except in a time of war or when a state of emergency has been declared, no executive agency should suppress the free expression of any opinion, however unpopular.
The court said that all Ghanaians, including lesbians and homosexuals, are entitled to freely express their views, to assemble and demonstrate in support of those views and to propagate those views.
“The trauma of unlawful arrest, weeks of arbitrary detention, and five court hearings for a misdemeanor charge of unlawful assembly is unconscionable,” Isaack said. “The Ghanian authorities should be concerned that the police are harassing law abiding citizens and denying them their right of assembly.”