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Liberia considers jailing homosexuals

Two new bills introduced into Liberia's legislature would make the country the latest on the African continent to punish homosexuality with possible jail time.

Liberian law currently does not explicitly address homosexuality. "Voluntary sodomy" is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, but there have been no recent convictions, according to the most recent U.S. State Department Human Rights Report.

A bill introduced by Rep. Clarence Massaquoi, which is currently being reviewed in committee, makes "same-sex sexual practices" a second-degree felony, punishable by up to five years imprisonment.

It also would apply to anyone who "seduces, encourages (or) promotes another person of the same gender to engage in sexual activities."

"Homosexuality is not part of our existence as a people," Massaquoi said in an interview at his legislative office. "We have never been like that."

It comes on the heels of a bill introduced early in February by former first lady, Senator Jewel Taylor, making same-sex marriage a first-degree felony, with sentences ranging up to 10 years in prison.

Members of the underground gay and lesbian community say their security situation has worsened, and that they have recently been subjected to regular threats and occasional violence.

"Liberia has made considerable progress in consolidating democracy over the last five years, but the proposed bill to increase penalties for consensual same-sex activity is a regrettable step backward," said Corinne Dufka, Human Rights Watch's senior West Africa researcher. "Such laws not only violate the right to privacy and to nondiscrimination, they also serve as a distraction from addressing the many real problems facing Liberia, such as strengthening the judiciary, addressing poverty and ensuring good economic governance. "

Contempt for homosexuals has led to anti-gay legal measures elsewhere in Africa. Last year, Nigeria's Senate voted in favor of a bill that would criminalize gay marriage, gay advocacy groups and same-sex public displays of affection. A newly added portion of the bill levels 10 years in prison for those found guilty of organizing, operating or supporting gay clubs, organizations and meetings.

And in 2009, a Ugandan legislator introduced a bill that would impose the death penalty for some gays and lesbians. The bill was reintroduced last month, though its author has said the death penalty provision will be dropped.

In January, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said African nations should stop treating gays as "second-class citizens, or even criminals." Ban told African leaders that discrimination based on sexual orientation "had been ignored or even sanctioned by many states for far too long."

The push to criminalize homosexuality in Liberia comes amid an increasingly virulent national conversation about gay rights that has occasionally spilled over into violence.

A newly former gay rights advocacy group, known as the Movement for the Defense of Gays and Lesbians in Liberia (MODEGAL), began campaigning to legalize same-sex marriage in January.

Leaders of MODEGAL have been chased off university campuses by angry mobs on two separate occasions. Leroy Archie Ponpon, the group's head, was ferried away from a radio station by police on Feb. 23 after hundreds of people gathered to protest his appearance on a breakfast program.

The debate also comes as a number of government officials have spoken out against gay rights in recent weeks. House Speaker Alex Tyler said in January that no bills endorsing gay rights would be advanced during his tenure.

Liberia's press secretary Jerolinmek M. Piah has said that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will not sign into law any bill supporting same sex marriage. "This government opposes gay rights," he said.

Sirleaf has not commented herself on the recent anti-gay bills, which would have to be approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives before landing on her desk.

Local newspapers began publishing anti-gay editorials in December, not long after US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a government-wide policy to push for the decriminalization of homosexuality overseas.

Liberian media outlets have consistently reported that the policy calls for the revocation of foreign assistance in countries that don't guarantee gay rights, despite assurances from U.S. officials to the contrary. Liberia receives more than $200 million annually from the U.S. government.

The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia has remained silent on the issue, even as gay rights campaigners have come under attack.

In an interview last week, outgoing US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she was concerned that further comment from the Embassy might only inflame anti-gay sentiment, especially in light of "occasionally irresponsible" reporting by local media.

"I can't be guaranteed that a public statement that we give will be put out in the way that we want the statement put out," she said.

But Massaquoi confirmed that he had met privately with U.S. officials, who he said expressed "concern" over his bill while stressing that foreign assistance to Liberia would not be conditional on gay rights.