As It Happens

21 people were arrested in Ghana during an LGBTQ rights event. Advocates want them freed

LGBTQ advocates in Ghana are calling for the release of 21 people who were arrested during a human rights training workshop.

Those arrested were participating in a training course to help LGBTQ people navigate the legal system

Robert Akoto Amoafo is the former country director of Amnesty International Ghana and the current president of the Alliance for Equality and Diversity, an LGBTQ-led national coalition in Ghana. (Submitted by Robert Akoto Amoafo )

Advocates in Ghana are calling for the release of 21 people who were arrested during an LGBTQ rights training workshop.

Police raided a private hotel conference last week in the southeastern city of Ho. Advocates were conducting a paralegal training course, teaching people how to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people facing abuse and discrimination in Ghana's criminal justice system. 

The officers accused those involved of engaging in "unlawful assembly," saying they were there to promote homosexual activity, which is considered illegal in Ghana under a rarely enforced colonial-era law.

"Some of [the police] were violent with some of our colleagues," LGBTQ rights advocate Robert Akoto Amoafo told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Amoafo is the president of the Alliance for Equality and Diversity in Ghana, which is working to help the arrestees navigate their case. 

"It was not just a matter of going there to find out about what was happening, or an investigation, but it was sort of a violent way of arresting people because they had a prejudicial thinking of what was going on there," he said.

Media showed up first

Amoafo says his organization doesn't know who tipped off police about the conference. But moments before the officers arrived, several journalists showed up and started taking photos of the participants, their flip charts and their reading materials, he said. 

If those images are published in the media, he says it could have disastrous consequences for those involved.

"That's a big threat to … some of them who left home and whose parents don't know whether they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, straight or whatever it may be, and have homophobic parents," he said.

"It would [force] some of them to move from their communities and go to new communities because they may not be able to exist within the community where they used to live before."

Others, he said, risk losing their jobs or their access to education. Many are already missing out on work and school while they await their bail hearing on Friday.

So far no local media has published the images, he says, and his organization and others will be in court on Friday to make sure the 21 are protected from further publicity. 

The arrests have sparked widespread backlash online — where people are using the hashtag #ReleaseThe21 — and from the international community.

The United States and the World Bank, both of which have provided millions of dollar of aid to Ghana, told Reuters they were closely watching the situation.

"We urge national leaders in Ghana to uphold constitutional human rights protections and to adhere to international human rights obligations and commitments for all individuals. This includes members of the LGBTQI+ community," a U.S. state department official said.

"We call on all Ghanaians to respect the provisions under Ghana's Constitution that guarantee freedom of speech,  expression and peaceful assembly."

Ghana's constitution protects people's rights to free assembly so long as it does not promote illegal or dangerous activity.

"There is freedom of expression and all that, but our criminal offences act prohibits unlawful assembly," Sergeant Prince Dogbatse, a regional police spokesman, told CNN.

We don't have any law that says that gathering to discuss homosexuality or to discuss anything of that sort is a crime.​- Robert Akoto Amoafo, LGBTQ rights advocate 

Ghana's penal code does not explicitly criminalize homosexuality, but rather forbids "unnatural carnal knowledge." The country has not prosecuted anyone for same-sex relations under that law in years, but LGBTQ people face frequent abuse and discrimination, including blackmail and attacks, human rights groups say.

In February, Ghana's first LGBTQ community centre was raided and shut down by authorities soon after it opened following strong opposition from politicians and church organizations. The move emboldened a group of lawmakers to try to criminalize the promotion of LGBTQ rights in the country, and plan to present a private members bill before parliament.

But under the current law, Amoafo says the 21 arrestees have done nothing wrong. 

"We don't have any law that says that gathering to discuss homosexuality or to discuss anything of that sort is a crime," he said.

"I have always said that if that is the case, then a lot of people need to be arrested, including religious leaders, traditional leaders, including even some of our government officials, because there have been several locations where these people have met in the name of discussing homosexuality."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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