Assailants armed with wooden clubs and iron bars, screaming that they were going to “cleanse” their neighborhood of gay people, dragged 14 young men from their beds and assaulted them this week, human rights activists said Saturday.

Four of the victims were marched to a police station, where they allegedly were kicked and punched by police officers who yelled pejoratives at them, said Ifeanyi Orazulike of the International Center on Advocacy for the Right to Health.

Police threatened that the men would be incarcerated for 14 years, he said, the maximum prison sentence under Nigeria’s new Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, dubbed the “Jail the Gays” law. Activists have warned the law could trigger attacks such as the one carried out early Thursday in Abuja, the capital of Africa’s most populous nation.

Mob justice is common in Nigeria, and civil rights organizations have been warning for years of an increase in community violence and the government’s failure to curb acts in which people have been beaten to death for perceived crimes such as theft.

“Since the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act was signed, we have expressed concern as a friend of Nigeria that it might be used by some to justify violence against Nigerians based on their sexual orientation,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Friday. “Recent attacks in Abuja deepen our concern on this front.”

Orazulike said the walls of houses where the men lived, in Gishiri, a shantytown near central Abuja, have been painted with graffiti reading, “Homosexuals, pack and leave.”

He said he went to the police station Thursday and met with an officer who ordered the four men who had been taken there released because there was no evidence they were gay and they had not been caught having sex.

Four men were severely injured and others suffered bruises, Orazulike said, adding that they were treated at his organization’s clinic because they were afraid to go to the hospital. “They said the police slapped and kicked them and swore at them,” he said.

Dorothy Aken’Ova, executive director of Nigeria’s International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, said she stayed up all night Wednesday trying to get police and civil defense authorities to send officers to the scene after she got a phone call from a man who was being attacked.

“Instead of helping them, apparently some of them were arrested,” she said. “None of the [law enforcement] agents responded to our distress calls.”

Dozens of people have been arrested since President Goodluck Jonathan signed the bill into law in January. It not only forbids same-sex marriage, which carries a 14-year jail sentence, it makes it a crime for anyone, straight or homosexual, to hold a meeting of gays or to advocate human rights for gays. Convicted offenders can be jailed for up to 10 years.

— Associated Press