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LAGOS, Nigeria — Police, working off a list of 168 suspects purportedly obtained through torture, are arresting dozens of gay men in Nigeria's northern Bauchi state, human rights activists said Tuesday.
A new law in Nigeria, dubbed the "Jail the Gays" bill, is encouraging the persecution of gays and will endanger programs fighting HIV-AIDS in the gay community, said Dorothy Aken'Ova, executive director of Nigeria's International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights.
On Monday, President Goodluck Jonathan's office confirmed that the Nigerian leader signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act that criminalizes gay marriage, gay organizations and anyone working with or promoting them.
In Bauchi state, police entrapped four gay men and tortured them into naming others, Aken'Ova said. She said the police have drawn up a list of 168 wanted gay men, of whom 38 have been arrested in recent weeks.
She said the arrests began during the Christmas holidays and blamed "all the noise that was going on surrounding the (same sex marriage prohibition) bill."
The chairman of Bauchi state Shariah Commission, Mustapha Baba Ilela, told the AP that 11 men have been arrested in the past two weeks and charged with belonging to a gay organization. He denied anyone had been tortured and said all 11 — 10 Muslims and a non-Muslim — signed confessions that they belonged to a gay organization but that some of them retracted the statements when they were charged by a judge.
Shariah is Islamic law, which is implemented to different degrees in nine of 36 states.
An AIDS counselor told The Associated Press he helped get bail for the men and also said a total of 38 were arrested. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear he would be arrested. Aken'Ova's organization is providing legal services for them.
The AIDS counselor said the arrests were sparked by a rumor that the United States paid $20 million to gay activists to promote same-sex marriage in this highly religious and conservative nation.
The United States, Britain and Canada condemned the new law in Africa's most populous nation, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying Monday that it "dangerously restricts freedom" of expression and association of all Nigerians.
Jonathan's spokesman said the president signed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act on Jan. 7, providing penalties of up to 14 years in jail for a gay marriage and up to 10 years' imprisonment for membership or encouragement of gay club, societies and organizations.
The U.N. agency to fight AIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria expressed "deep concern that access to HIV services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will be severely affected by a new law in Nigeria — further criminalizing LGBT people, organizations and activities, as well as people who support them."
The law also criminalizes people and groups who support "the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies and organizations, processions or meetings in Nigeria." Those convicted could be jailed for 10 years.
UNAIDS said the law could harm Jonathan's own presidential initiative to fight AIDS, started a year ago.
It said Nigeria has the second largest HIV epidemic globally with an estimated 3.4 million people living with HIV. The disease affects many more gay men than heterosexuals, with 2010 statistics estimating national HIV prevalence at 4 percent compared to 17 percent among gay men, according to UNAIDS.
Jonathan has not publicly expressed his views on homosexuality.
His spokesman, Reuben Abati, told The Associated Press on Monday night, "This is a law that is in line with the people's cultural and religious inclination. So it is a law that is a reflection of the beliefs and orientation of Nigerian people. ... Nigerians are pleased with it."
Associated Press writer Shehu Saulawa contributed to this report from Bauchi, Nigeria.