ILORIN, Nigeria, July 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A Nigerian sharia court's decision to sentence three men to death by stoning for homosexual acts could trigger similar cases in the country's states that apply Islamic law and unleash a wave of homophobic violence, LGBTQ+ rights groups said.
Male same-sex relationships are punishable by up to 14 years in prison under Nigerian national law, but 12 states in the mainly Muslim north also use parallel sharia courts to punish residents for crimes ranging from adultery to blasphemy.
Last month's ruling in the northern state of Bauchi has raised fears of an increase in homophobia in Africa's most populous nation, where many are already hostile towards LGBTQ+ people.
"This sentencing opens the door for more draconian judgments against LGBTQ persons. It's a call for violence," William Rashidi, director of LGBTQ+ rights group Equality Triangle, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"With this judgment, the times have been rolled back. (It) affects the very essence of freedom of expression and association," Rashidi continued. "People have been given some sort of rights to attack, maim, and violate LGBTQ+ persons."
A culturally conservative country, some Nigerians believe that homosexuality is a sin with many arguing that same-sex relations are antithetical to the country's culture and beliefs.
The three men sentenced to death in Bauchi, one of whom was aged 70, were not represented by lawyers, which could be grounds for their conviction to be thrown out, rights advocates said.
The men have 30 days to appeal the judgment. Any death penalty passed by sharia courts also needs the approval of the state governor, whose office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But whatever the outcome, the case is likely to whip up hostility and possibly violence against LGBTQ+ people in a country where homosexuality is widely seen as unacceptable, campaigners said.
"It's a very slippery slope," said Marline Oluchi, a board member of global LGBTQ+ rights group ILGA's African arm. "These are dangerous terrains and safety for others is a huge consideration."
The case is thought to be the first in which a Nigerian sharia court has imposed a death sentence for homosexuality, said Ayomide Adebayo-Oyetoro, a lawyer at Lilywood Legal, a law firm that focuses on tech and human rights issues.
In 2014, a gay man was lashed 20 times after being convicted for sodomy in Bauchi.
LGBTQ+ rights groups said they were working to support the men, who, according to local media, are aged 20, 30, and 70, and to rescind the death sentence.
The absence of lawyers to represent the men breaches their constitutional rights, added Adebayo-Oyetoro.
"I do believe if due process is followed, that is an appeal, the judgment will be overturned," she said.
The case could also fuel debate about the authority of sharia law in Nigeria, which has a secular constitution.
Last month, a singer asked the Appeals Court to declare the sharia penal code in another northern state unconstitutional. A ruling is expected before October.
The Ministry of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
The case has crushed morale and raised anxiety among LGBTQ+ Nigerians, who already face heavy repression including a ban on membership of rights groups.
"Safety is something we don't feel as openly queer persons living in Nigeria," Oluchi said. "There is always one form of violence after another ... reminding us that our rights are being violated daily."
More than half of Nigerians said they would not accept a family member who is LGBTQ+ in a 2019 poll, while rights campaigners say the anti-gay marriage law effectively sanctions both police and members of the public to carry out attacks.
Despite such hurdles, LGBTQ+ visibility has been slowly increasing, with public acceptance gradually on the rise as well.
Most organising takes place online due to safety concerns, though gay and transgender people gathered to hold LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations in the commercial capital of Lagos last month.
While activists are working to raise an outcry over the sharia court's death sentence, many are in fear for the future.
"It just seems like the fight that we are fighting isn't going anywhere," said Matthew Blaise, a 23-year-old gay man living in Lagos who said he had been suffering increased anxiety attacks in the wake of the case. "These three people are being scapegoated, and they will go for more people. This will really drag the community back into darkness."