The Congolese LGBTQIA+ rights defender lives in fear after bogus accusations of ‘promoting homosexuality’ drove police to her doorstep.
By: Carl Collison
Crammed into a boat with over 100 people, Cherie [a pseudonym] prayed that no one would recognize her. “I was wearing a hat and a balaclava,” the 33-year-old transgender woman says of her attempts to stay under the radar. Hours earlier, shortly before midnight, she had fled her home in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after police tried to break into her front door in the hope of arresting her.
After the six-hour boat ride to a nearby province, Cherie, a founding member and leader of gay rights nonprofit Rainbow Sunrise Mapambazuko, traveled to where she now lives in hiding. “It all started with threatening messages and insults from young people in our neighborhood,” she said. “I couldn’t walk the streets in our neighborhood because the community didn’t want to see me. My presence bothered them.
“They accused me of encouraging young people in our neighborhood to become gay and that I promote homosexuality. They insulted me saying: ‘You, queer [faggot], we will kill you. We will burn you alive. You bewitched our neighborhood kids to turn gay. You are a curse. You bring bad luck. We will burn your house down.'”
As difficult as the almost daily barrage of threats is, Cherie’s decision to flee her home came after she faced the prospect of arrest. “That’s when I called my lawyer, who went to the prosecutor’s office to find out the reason for the warrant,” she said. “My lawyer then asked me to leave that neighborhood because the people there wanted me arrested and put in jail.”
According to the lawyer, who chose to remain anonymous, Cherie faces charges of criminal association, rape and pimping. “All of these accusations against Cherie have been made by youth and religious groups in her neighborhood who consider her a public danger because of her work and her life. [sexual] orientation [and gender identity], which they consider contrary to Congolese morality,” he said. “They want to see Cherie in jail at all costs.”
He added that there is no evidence against Cherie, but “the crime of rape in the DRC is very sensitive. We have cases where perpetrators were arrested and held in jail for six months without any evidence.”
The lawyer said the case against Cherie would probably only be dismissed if there were “the financial wherewithal to pay for justice”. Otherwise, she faces a maximum sentence of 10 to 15 years in prison “with fines of up to 10,000 dollars” (about 160,000 rand).
Queer and “criminal”
Cherie and other queer rights activists created Rainbow Sunrise Mapambazuko in 2010. “What prompted us to create our organization was the context of violence against LGBTQI people in our region. We created our organization to help people in difficulty and to promote our rights,” she said.
There is no provision explicitly prohibiting consensual same-sex sexual acts between adults in the DRC. But a 2021 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA World) concluded that Section 176 of the country’s penal code, which criminalizes activities considered an affront to “public decency”, had been used as a legal basis for criminalizing LGBT people.
The report notes that many attempts have been made over the past decade to criminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity. For example, one MP, Ejiba Yamapia, tried in 2010 to garner support for an unnatural sexual practices bill, which criminalized same-sex sexual acts as “unnatural” and “immoral.”
Another MP, Steve Mbikayi, proposed a similar bill in 2013. It sought to criminalize same-sex sexual activity as well as ban Pride events, advocacy meetings or any form of “promotion of homosexuality”. The bill provided for a prison sentence of three to five years for homosexuals and three to 12 years for transgender people. It was defeated, but Mbikayi introduced similar legislation in 2015 and 2016.
ILGA’s global report also found that those arrested on suspicion of being gay or transgender faced numerous human rights violations, including harassment, extortion, torture, denunciation in the media and arbitrary detention for several months.
Cherie’s case is not the first time Rainbow Sunrise Mapambazuko staff have been targeted. In December 2012, police surrounded the organization’s offices “in an apparent attempt to arrest the leader of the group”, the report noted. Although unsuccessful, Rainbow Sunrise Mapambazuko activists “would continue to be targeted”.
In May of the following year, the then head of the organization was arrested for promoting homosexuality. During his detention, he was tortured and deprived of food and water. He also said he was “raped with sticks at least three times and beaten by inmates”. He was released after paying the authorities $400. After a failed attempt to assassinate him on his return home, he fled to neighboring Uganda and eventually to Europe.
Members of other organizations are also victims of harassment. The executive director of the Movement for the Promotion of Respect and Equal Rights and Health has reportedly been threatened and harassed by the police and the country’s National Intelligence Agency.
Anna Mmolai-Chalmers, head of LGBTI, sex work and disability programs at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, said things were getting tougher for gay people in the DRC. The center is a partner of Rainbow Sunrise Mapambazuko.
“While in other regions [in Africa] governments and courts protect LGBTI people, in the DRC it seems really difficult. So we are really worried about the situation of LGBTI [people] in the DRC”.
After more than two months in hiding, Cherie said all she hopes for is getting the money to pay the lawyer and the authorities so the case can be closed. When asked if she felt safe where she was, Cherie said: “Not so much… I feel a little relieved, but I’m still afraid that these people will find me. The police officers from the prosecution are [still] come to my house to pick me up. A few days ago, they wanted to break down the door to force their way into my house, thinking that I had locked myself in the house all this time. When all this started, I really had the idea of committing suicide.
Cherie, however, swore that she would continue her work as an activist once her ordeal was over. “Activism is very important to me. I truly care about my fellow human beings who are victims of rights violations every day. I have set myself the goal of defending their rights, our rights.
Reprinted with permission. This article was first published by New Framea non-profit social media publication based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The author of this article, Carl Collison, is a journalist and photographer based in South Africa.