A Nigerian court ended a legal stalemate this week, dismissing a two-year-old case against 47 men charged with breaking the country’s 2014 anti-homosexuality law.
That law exacerbated the nation’s homophobia and led to dozens of arrests, but reportedly has never produced any convictions.
The judge threw out the case on Oct. 27. Prosecutors failed to attend that day’s hearing at the federal high court in Lagos, having previously failed to present some of their witnesses in a case that had been adjourned on several occasions.
Justice Rilwan Aikawa struck out the case and said he had done so due to the “lack of diligent prosecution”.
The Nigerian law banning gay marriage, making it punishable by up to 14 years in prison; public displays of same-sex affection, punishable by up to 10 years; and membership in a gay group, up to 10 years, prompted an international outcry when it came into force under former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014.
The men were arrested in a police raid on a Lagos hotel in the city’s Egbeda district in 2018. Police said the men were being initiated into a gay club, but the defendants said they were just attending a birthday party.
Prosecution and defense lawyers in the case both stated that nobody had yet been convicted under the law. The Lagos case was widely seen as a test case that could help to establish the burden of proof needed for a conviction under the 2014 law.
Outside the court, many of the men smiled and cheered, including dancer James Brown who, smiling, said: “I am free. It means a lot of good things.”
Taxi driver Onyeka Oguaghamba, a father of four who said he merely drove people to the party, said he was happy the case had been struck out but disappointed that it was not dismissed entirely.
Under Nigerian law, defendants in a case that is struck out can be re-arrested and arraigned again on the same charge, whereas that is not possible in cases that have been dismissed.
“I am not happy, because I’m looking for the matter to end in a way that people will see me and believe what I have been saying from the beginning,” he said, adding that the decision meant he could be charged again.
Oguaghamba and others previously told Reuters they had been stigmatized as a result of the raid and a televised news conference held by police in which they were identified the day after their arrest.
Chris Agiriga, another of the men, said the striking out of the case would not help him to be reconciled with his family who had rejected him over the matter.
“Since the past two years, this has caused a lot of damage in my life,” he said.
Emmanuel Sadi, a program officer with rights group The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS), said the outcome of the case raised questions about the law used to charge the men.
“You can’t even build a case around it,” he said. “I hope they (the government) realize how redundant it is as a law, and they are open to removing or repealing it,” he said.
This article includes text from Reuters/NBC and from UNAIDS’s Equal Eyes news briefs.