BY. ANTHONY LANGAT AND JACOB KUSHNER
NAIROBI, Kenya — LGBT advocates in Kenya say blackmail and extortion of gay people is on the rise, enabled by the fact that homosexuality is both unaccepted and illegal here.
“Acts of gross indecency” and “against the order of nature,” often interpreted to mean gay sex, are punishable by 14 years in prison. Victims of blackmail and extortion are often hesitant to report crimes to the police for fear of being persecuted themselves under the law.
Eric Gitari, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said criminals often identify gay people on social media networks and then persuade victims to meet them for sex. Gitari said that according to the cases that his organization has received, sometimes the blackmailers lure their victims to rooms with hidden video cameras. They then use the recorded sex videos to extort money from the victims.
“They send you this video and they tell you they can send it to your wife, they can send it to your employer if you are not going to pay 300,000 Kenyan shillings (about $3,200),” Gitari said.
And they don’t always stop there. “It becomes a regular thing until you lose your number or you change your workplace,” he said.
In some cases the blackmailers assault their victims as well. Gitari said that they have received several cases where the victim has been physically assaulted, robbed of valuables and then extorted.
“What is standard is that they will steal all your valuables, they will force you to give them passwords to your ATM cards, they will force you to call your family members to send money,” he said.
Gitari recalls a case where after a victim had been beaten, the blackmailers called the victim’s family and falsely represented themselves as the police, alleging the victim had been found sodomizing a minor and demanding the family send bail money or the allegation would be leaked to the media.
Two Kenyan men, Titus and Abdukadir, say they were targeted for blackmail in separate incidents last summer because they are gay and then coerced to hand over money and valuables to four armed men.
Titus is married, but he began messaging a man online who he eventually decided to meet for casual sex. Last July, while his wife was out, Titus invited the man over.
Instead, Titus said the man showed up with a stranger, came into Titus’s house and accosted him, demanding to know how he dared to solicit sex from a man. Titus alleges the men stole his phone and cash.
The next month, the same men are alleged to have repeated their violence against Abdukadir. Both men say their attackers threatened to expose them if they reported the incidents to the police.
Unlike most LGBT victims of blackmail, Titus and Abdukadir decided to take the risk: They reported the incidents to a local LGBT advocate from the organization Health Options for Young Men Living with HIV/AIDS & STIs (HOYMAS), who helped them report to the police.
Police have taken four suspects into custody and a hearing is scheduled for November 2. In Kenya, a guilty verdict for charges of robbery with violence can carry the death penalty.
Prosecutions in cases of LGBT blackmail, however, are incredibly rare.
“It is difficult to overstate the terror and helplessness that these types of threats evoke for their victims,” according to a 2011 report by the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission report that surveyed African LGBTs about blackmail, the most recent such report available. “In places where it is illegal, stigmatizing, or dangerous to identify as LGBT or to engage in same-sex activity, keeping one’s sexuality a secret may be, quite literally, a matter of life or death.”
Indeed, the study found that “The sheer prevalence of blackmail and extortion against LGBT people is staggering.” More than half of survey respondents said they were closeted gays and that they’d been threatened with exposure to their family, friends or coworkers. But LGBT have been extorted for all sorts of things, “ranging from demands for snacks and small favors to demands for cars, houses or sex.” Most often, the demand is money.
Some examples from the report:
- In Ghana, a 17-year-old student was raped at knifepoint at a bus stop on his way to Accra. “His attackers knew that he would not scream or draw attention for fear of being exposed,” the report reads.
- One Ghanian victim surveyed said that “blackmailers also say that ‘Ghana is a Christian nation and so blackmailing homosexuals is right,’ using allegations of immorality to justify their own acts of intimidation, theft, and violence,” according to the report.
- Another Ghanian interviewee suggested that “if one or two individuals were charged with blackmail and extortion, the rates of these crimes would decrease. Without that deterrent, more and more youth are finding these crimes to be both easy and profitable.”
- In Nigeria, lesbian and bisexual women “face threats from family, friends, lovers, and the people in their schools and workplaces … Five high school students who were interviewed had similar stories of being blackmailed by their classmates or bunk mates because they were caught in compromising positions with their female lovers or were careless with their love letters,” according to the report. “They discussed having to give money, belongings, or their food to avoid being publicly exposed in the school assembly.”
- In Zimbabwe in 2003, “an average of one case of extortion per month was brought to the attention of the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, and the police were actively involved in approximately half of these either in collaboration with the extortionist or on their own account.”
- Overall, only 6 percent of LGBT victims of blackmail reported the incidents to police. And in each of these cases, “the police concentrated on whether the person who reported the blackmail was actually homosexual rather than whether that allegation was being used to illegally target them.”
One of the most troubling stories of the report comes from Nigeria, where a lesbian high school teacher, Bola, was blackmailed by a coworker and coerced to pay her 10,000 naira (about $50) per month of her teacher’s salary out of fear that the coworker would report her and she’d lose her job. When the coworker eventually demanded an increase in the payments, Bola refused, at which point the coworker forwarded their email exchanges to their boss.
“Her boss invited her to his office, grinning. Bola was surprised that instead of being fired … he proposed to Bola that she invite her lover for a threesome.” He continued to demand sexual favors for months, and when she refused he eventually announced her sexual orientation to others.
“Bola left town, assumed a new name, and started a new life in Lagos,” according to the report. “Looking back on her experience, she said, ‘if I didn’t have the option of starting all over again, I would have killed myself.’”
Some Kenyan LGBT advocates are working to prevent and help prosecute cases of blackmail. In September 2014, Dennis Nzioka set up an online platform where people can anonymously report such crimes.
Nzioka then works to verify them before posting. His website tallies the number of reported cases and, controversially, even names the alleged perpetrators.
In February, GroundTruth contacted a man who was frequently accused on that site of engaging in blackmail. He denied the allegations, saying that he is a sex worker who had not been paid his dues by the victims.
Simon Wainaina, who works for the health organization HOYMAS, said he also receives blackmail and extortion cases and that in most cases blackmailers pose as sex workers, only to turn on their victims.
But it isn’t always textbook blackmail that’s the problem.
Often LGBTs will have their rights to privacy infringed upon. For one young gay man in Mombasa, one monumental invasion of privacy — the release of a sex tape without his consent — would send him into hiding out of fear for his life.
Born in Kenya’s South Nyanza province, George Oteno became aware that he was gay as a teenager. In his second year in high school, he said two classmates caught him having sex with another boy in their dormitory.
“They went and shouted, ‘Come and see what these guys are doing.’ We were so nervous we were just speechless,” Oteno said. After the boys reported them to the principal, they were expelled.
“In Africa it’s taboo. It’s an abomination,” said Oteno. “My uncle went and told people in the village and told people, ‘he is trying to be kuchu, or gay. “My mother was disappointed. I didn’t finish my high school because of that. So I decided to come to Mombasa,” he said, referring to Kenya’s coastal port city.
Oteno found work at a tea processing company, but when he was laid off from his job, he said he eventually turned to sex work.
“I was 22. It was in 2008,” he said. “Because I didn’t have a job, I was forced to start selling my body. Business was good,” he said. “The only problem was people on the streets. They would come to us: ‘Why are you guys dressed like this? What are you doing?’ They were saying in Africa as a whole it’s not accepted. It’s a disgrace. ‘You guys are like demons how could you wear these kind of clothes and do for men like you are ladies, prostitutes. You guys are even less than humans.’”
Hurt by the criticisms, Oteno stopped working on the street and continued only in private with clients he received by referral. One day in April of last year, a friend called him with an opportunity: A European man was paying Kenyan gay men to act in private films for his own enjoyment, and the local man shooting the videos wanted Oteno to act in one of them.
“I asked him how much was he paying? He told me it was 5,000 (shillings)”, Oteno said — about $55. “I said ‘Wow, 5,000 in these hard times?’ I didn’t think twice.”
Oteno said once he arrived at the location — a hotel in Diani, a beach area just south of Mombasa — the man assured him the film would be seen only by a private solicitor in Europe. He promised Oteno that it would never be distributed further. Oteno agreed, and after the filming they paid him 7,000 shillings — 2,000 more than they’d promised.
Then one morning in December, Oteno got a call from a gay friend of his. “He called me and said George, ‘wow wow wow, I have seen your stuff.’ I was like, ‘What stuff?’”
It was the film.
“I became speechless. My heart beat, I was so nervous,” said Oteno. “I said ‘Maybe it is someone else, people can look alike.’ He said, ‘Yes it is you. I saw your face.’ I told him to send the video on (mobile messaging service) WhatsApp. I watched it. It was me.”
Oteno never found out how the video became public, but within days he was receiving calls and messages from friends and strangers alike, some of them disappointed or angry, some of them threatening.
“They were saying ‘George, we have to find you. We have to punish you for doing this sort of thing.’ I became so scared,” he said. “I feared going out. I switched off my phone for like three days.” But when he turned it back on, the threats had only increased. “People were still calling. They were saying ‘George, we know where you’re staying and we are coming for you.’”
At that, Oteno changed his phone number, packed his things and moved to a rural area outside the city, where he stayed hidden for an entire month.
When he told his story to GroundTruth in March he was wearing large sunglasses and a large, flat-brimmed baseball cap. He said he still tries to hide his identity out of fear that someone who’s seen the film will recognize him.
Oteno said he’s angry that he can’t report the incident and sue the people who released the video of him without his consent.
“If it was legal I would have reported the matter to the police. I would have had the confidence,” he said. “But in Kenya it is hard.”
Oteno’s is a tragically common scenario in Kenya, a country that remains largely homophobic, said Michael Kioko, a lawyer for the Mombasa-based gay rights organization Persons Marginalized and Aggrieved (PEMA).
“It’s civil liability,” said Kioko. “These people were duped. They were not told the whole truth. They were not told that what they were doing was porn and it will be put online for everyone to view.”
“The problem is you can’t argue that here. Because then they will arrest you for having done those acts.”
That appears to be precisely what happened to two gay men just south of Mombasa in Kwale. When a gay man had his cell phone taken by a vindictive neighbor, the neighbor published images from the phone that depicted gay couples, some of them kissing. The images began to disseminate around the area via social media.
Within days the owner of the phone started receiving threats from strangers who had seen the images, and soon those threats became real: The man “was stabbed on the street by men with a broken bottle,” said Jabu Pereira, a South African advocate for LGBT rights who interviewed the man and investigated the incident. “There was hate speech involved. They told him he was shaming Kenyan men and Kenyan society for being gay,” she said. “Police didn’t arrest anyone for the attack.”
Instead, said Pereira, police targeted the victim himself. Police reportedly invited the owner of the phone to a bar under false pretenses, where they allegedly demanded a bribe. When he didn’t pay, they took him into custody. Later they ransacked his house, confiscating DVDs and anything else that could be construed to show acts of homosexuality.
Now, the cell phone owner and another man who appeared in some of the cell phone pictures are being charged with “committing an unnatural offense” and could face 14 years in prison, despite that the phone images and the confiscated DVDs contain “no video, no sex. Nothing that would be contravening the penal code of Kenya,” said Pereira. Nonetheless, in late March, Pereira said the victim was sleeping in the toilets of the jail because the other inmates have been threatening him due to his identity.
This man is a gay victim of police extortion, said Pereira. “Police wanted money from him,” said Pereira. “Police target gay men they think have some kind of money.”
There is no reliable estimate as to the frequency of police abuse of this kind, but one police officer admitted to GroundTruth that police are known for extorting LGBTs.
“I won’t lie — that happens in Kenya,” said Moses Kipkoriri Bett, a police officer in Mombasa.
In Kenya’s new, 2010 constitution, “we say that different sets of people have their own way of living and we have that freedom of choosing the kind of life we want to live. And as long as their choices are not criminal then they have the right to enjoy the life they choose,” said Bett.
But the country’s penal code, which predates that constitution, still outlaws homosexual acts. That fact means that LGBT are an easy target for rogue police officers looking to enrich themselves.
“That’s why we’re saying we need a (new) law to be put in place,” said Bett, one that “should guarantee and specify the rights of such groups of people.”
Advocates for PEMA say they’re working on drafting a bill to introduce to parliament that would de-criminalize acts of homosexuality. But until the day such a law passes, Bett said it’s not surprising that LGBT victims of extortion and blackmail often don’t come forward to report it and seek justice. “They know that the moment they report, they are exposing themselves for prosecution.”
“The moment they come to the police it will become public knowledge that they practice that sort of thing,” said Bett. “These people don’t want to expose themselves.”
This story is the fourth in a series on LGBT rights in East Africa, produced with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Read the first story, “Anti-LGBT groups are making inroads across East Africa,” the second story, “Inside the nightmares of Africa’s LGBT refugees,” and the third story, “Guns, knives and rape: The plight of a gay Ethiopian refugee in Kenya.”