The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These LGBT refugees came to Kenya seeking freedom. Now they say they’ve been imprisoned and abused.

A collection of artwork made by Ugandan LGBT refugees at a safe house on the outskirts of Nairobi. (Max Bearak/The Washington Post)

NAIROBI — On Feb. 22, activists, reporters and well-wishers from Kenya and all over the world gathered in a courtroom in Nairobi, hoping to witness a historic moment: the decriminalization of homosexual conduct for the first time in conservative East Africa, a region where anti-LGBT crackdowns are common, sometimes even at the behest of presidents.

A judge ultimately deflated the room with a last-minute postponement of the ruling — fueling the rumor mill that Kenya’s top politicians were interfering — but the mood wasn’t glum. One activist joked that he would have time to buy a snappier suit before the new date set for the ruling in late May.

But on that same day, 20 LGBT refugees who had come to Kenya hoping to escape repression in countries such as Uganda, Rwanda and Congo were spending their first full day in jail. Their ordeal has now lasted nearly a month and demonstrates the difficulties that LGBT people in Kenya face regardless of what happens in the courts.

The refugees were arrested en masse near the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in an upscale neighborhood of the Kenyan capital. Police say they were creating a public nuisance, trespassing and even defecating in public. In interviews during visiting hours at Nairobi West Prison, five of the refugees said the charges are trumped up and that they have suffered horrible physical abuse at the hands of prison guards and other prisoners.

The interviewees complained that they had lice and that those who were HIV positive among them could not access their antiretroviral treatment.

Lutaya Benon, one of six detainees in the men’s prison who identify as trans women, had tears in her eyes as she recounted how guards had ripped out her earrings. “Everyone in here is horrible to us,” she said. “In the night, some other prisoners have come and forced us to let them touch our penises.”

Benon and others said that all 20 were carrying identification from UNHCR. Edgar Atuhe, 24, who, like Benon, is Ugandan, said that UNHCR or affiliated organizations had not yet come to check on them in the prison, though a UNHCR spokeswoman said the agency has been in contact with the detainees “directly and indirectly” and that a lawyer has been provided for them from a partner organization.

That lawyer, Atuhe said, told all the refugees to plead guilty, advice that the UNHCR spokeswoman echoed and said was “in the hope of trying to get a reduced or lesser punishment.”

“These offenses were committed in public and difficult to deny,” said Yvonne Ndege, the UNHCR spokeswoman. Atuhe and others said they would not take the advice as they believe they did nothing wrong.

Prison guards let The Post speak with only five of the 19 detainees at Nairobi West (one person is being held at a women’s prison nearby). “You will get from these five what you would get from the rest,” one guard said.

Among the inmates was Sabam Kimbugwe, who opened his mouth to show how many of his teeth had been knocked out (at least four), the result of a prison guard’s attack, he said. He added that similar attacks had happened to others whom The Post was not able to meet, provoked sometimes by small things such as a refusal to eat the porridge served every day.

Ndege said that “we’re looking into this” in response to the allegations of abuse in the prison and said the agency is planning visits with the detainees this week.

A tentative court date for the refugees has been set for March 26.

Homosexuality is illegal in most African countries, many of which inherited anti-sodomy laws from European colonial governments. Prominent politicians in Kenya have described homosexuality as “un-African” and an affront to the values of most Kenyans, 85 percent of whom identify as Christians and 10 percent as Muslims.

In neighboring Tanzania, many LGBT people have gone into hiding after authorities in the capital, Dar es Salaam, called on residents to “help identify homosexuals” so they could be arrested. Uganda, which also borders Kenya, drew international condemnation in 2014 for passing a law that carried a life sentence for “aggravated homosexuality.” The law was annulled later that year, but thousands of LGBT Ugandans became refugees, fleeing a spate of murders that accompanied inflamed rhetoric around the law.

Many, like Lubega Musa, came to Nairobi, and hope to be resettled in more accepting countries such as Britain or Canada. Musa, 26, now lives in a suburban safe house with other refugees — and he is friends with many of those recently detained. He has been in Kenya for almost three years and cautioned against optimism despite the judicial progressiveness that many activists here hope for.

“If homosexuality is decriminalized here, it will actually be worse for us,” he said. “Our resettlement process will slow down, or even stop. UNHCR will say we are safe now. But actually we will be less safe.”

“It would be a good moment for activists, but it is a scary one for the refugee or the trans woman on the street,” he continued. “To the celebrators I say shorten your high heels, babe! If it happens, this could be a huge milestone, yes, but on the street, it is just one step.”

Rael Ombuor contributed to this report.