- Eritrean government officials for the first time have answered to rights activists' questions about the country's tough anti-homosexuality laws. Legalisation was out of question, the official said.
At a recent UN review of the human rights situation in Eritrea, Rowland Jide Macaulay of the Canadian HIV AIDS Legal Network challenged the Eritrean government to "repeal all legislative provisions which criminalise sexual activity between consenting adults of the same sex."
According to the Canadian rights activist, the criminalisation of consensual homosexual acts was a threat to public health as it "frustrated creating access to HIV prevention and awareness programmes for men who had sex with men." Moreover, it was contrary to international law, human rights and "likely to exacerbate incidents of harassment, abuse, arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions."
Girmai Abraham of the Eritrean Ministry of National Development was confronted with many demands at the human rights hearing, including bids to abolish death penalty, stopping the practice of torture and adhering to press freedom. Consulting with government in Asmara, he came up with a list of which demands Eritrea would listen to and which it would reject.
According to Mr Abraham, the Eritrean government rejected the demand to legalise same-sex activity between consenting adults, which was "in direct contradiction with the values and traditions of the Eritrean people."
Homosexuality is illegal in Eritrea, according to the 1957 penal code, which is an inheritance from colonial times. The penal code strictly prohibits "sexual deviations," among which is performing sexual acts with someone of the same sex. So-called "unnatural carnal offences" can be punished with imprisonment of between 10 days and 3 years.
Little is known about the practical use of this law as the state-controlled Eritrean press does not report about homosexuality at all. But according to a report from the British Embassy in Asmara, people who participate in "such an act are prosecuted and punished whenever found guilty." In 2004, authorities reportedly expelled a number of foreigners from Eritrea on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Mr Macaulay, content for having been given an official answer on the legality of homosexuality in Eritrea, has decided to go further with his campaigning. In a letter to Eritrean President Issaias Afewerki, the Canadian asks him to reconsider his position, "appreciating the sensitivity of the issue."
In general terms, homosexuality is not a publicly discussed issue in Eritrea. The existance of sexual minorities, in the modern sense, is not known to Eritreans at large, but law enforcers have become increasingly aware of homosexuality in their efforts to fight it.
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