By: Steve Williams | March 25, 2014
It’s already a crime to be gay in Ethiopia, but lawmakers are planning legislation that would bar those convicted for their same-sex relationships from receiving any kind of pardon, a worrying turn that LGBT rights activists say could be a signal of worse things to come.
Reports suggest that Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers have endorsed a move to amend the country’s Pardon and Amnesty Law to make homosexuality a non-pardonable offense. Ethiopia’s Criminal Code already outlaws same-sex sexual activity under Article 629. The penalties for violating this law can include imprisonment for no less than one year, ranging all the way up to fifteen years for aggravated homosexuality.
Ethiopia’s Pardon and Amnesty law, however, currently says that if prison inmates, currently including homosexuals, have shown “sincere regret” for their crimes as well as their having exhibited good behavior, they can be let out of prison early. The plea must be first accepted as having merit, and then must be approved by the country’s President. This new legislation seeks to curb that power and specifically would deny homosexuals from having their sentences reduced.
By excluding those convicted of homosexuality from being able to seek a pardon may not on the face of it seem as terrible as, say, laws in other African states like Nigeria and Uganda. However, by excluding homosexuals from the ability to seek a pardon, the so-called crime of homosexuality is put on the same footing as offenses like rape, human trafficking, terrorism, corruption and smuggling. This is an incredibly concerning precedent and, human rights campaigners suggest, could be a sign of groundwork being laid on which further anti-gay legislation might be built.
A spokesperson for Rainbow Ethiopia, which works for greater recognition of LGBT rights in the country, is quoted as saying about the new legislation that: “Ethiopia has already very harsh anti-LGBT laws… The situation, however, is getting worse as it seems the government is trying to its emulate Nigeria’s and Uganda’s anti-gay laws.”
Indeed, when Uganda first floated the “Kill the Gays” bill, which of course later became the now enshrined “Jail the Gays” legislation, Ethiopian religious conservatives also lobbied hard for similar legislation. While that has yet to materialize, there are concerns that in the run-up to next year’s elections lawmakers may turn to populist social issues like criminalizing homosexuality to score points. There are already signals that those measures would receive considerable support.
A request to hold an anti-homosexuality rally, lodged by the group Addis Ababa Youth Forum and an association of Ethiopian Orthodox Church members with strong ties to Ethiopia’s ruling party, apes the popular meme that homosexuality is a western import and that homosexuals seek to prey on children, or as the request is said to term it. They say they want to fight the “sodomite violence that is being committed against minors.” The rally is expected to go ahead in the next few months.
Under the guise of protecting children, Ethiopia has already instituted tougher penalties for transmitting HIV to someone of the same sex, and has used fears of homosexuals recruiting to be one tent pole holding up a law that prevents foreign NGOs and most domestic groups from engaging in any kind of advocacy but particularly LGBT rights and sexual health promotion. There are also reports that local authorities may be about to roll out youth seminars against homosexuality.
What all this seems to add up to is a situation that is becoming increasingly precarious for LGBT Ethiopians. So while the current proposed change in the law might seem on its own like no big deal, what it signals could be potentially very damaging, if not life threatening, for Ethiopia’s LGBT community.