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Zambian Activist Arrested After Speaking Out for Gay Rights

A gay rights activist was arrested in Zambia after he appeared on live television arguing that the country, which criminalises homosexual acts, should respect same-sex relationships.

Police arrested Paul Kasonkomona on April 7, 2013 as he left the private Muvi TV studios after saying in an interview that gay rights were like any other form of human rights, to be respected at all cost. He was charged the next day with “inciting the public to take part in indecent activities”.

Kasonkomona remains in police custody, despite his supporters warning that the health of the HIV-positive activist could deteriorate in jail.

The YouTube video below posted by Muvi TV shows plains-clothes officers arresting Kasonkomona:

Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Zambia, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. An overwhelming 98 percent of the country disapproves of homosexual behavior, according to 2010 Pew Research Center poll.

Kasonkomona's arrest came a week after four all-male couples, four Zambians and four foreigners, attempted to get married in the Zambian capital city of Lusaka.

Paul Kasonkomona (with raised hand). Photo courtesy of Zambian Watchdog.

Gay and HIV activist Paul Kasonkomona (with raised hand). Photo courtesy of Zambian Watchdog.

The official in charge of the registry, Henry Kapata, told a local newspaper in a story republished by citizen media website Zambian Watchdog:

They were waiting on the queue and I didn’t know what they wanted until they entered my office. They were all men, dressed normally. [They told him point blank] We have come here specifically to register our marriages. […] I was shocked that such things can happen in Zambia. I told them that we don’t register gay marriages in Zambia. The Marriages Act Cap 50 of the Laws of Zambia and even the Constitution is very clear about that.

The attempted marriages attracted condemnation throughout the country. Home Affairs Minister Edgar Lungu, acting president at the time of President Michael Sata’s visit to China, reiterated at a church function the government's position on homosexuality, saying:

As a nation and government, we will not accept foreign misdemeanors because we have never known same marriages of man to man, or woman to woman and the bible does not allow. We would better remain poor as a nation than to accept some of these norms perpetuated by people with money who want to destroy our society.

Church officials also balked at the men. Zambia is officially a Christian nation, according to its 1996 national constitution.

Reverend Pukuta Mwanza of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia called homosexuality an “inhuman and unnatural practice” and urged the government not to bend on its hardline position, writing in a letter to the country's head of delegation of the European Union:

We urge our Zambian government not to succumb to your pressures in seeking to interfere with the internal affairs of our sovereign nation by promoting the so called ‘human’ rights that are contrary to our fundamental Christian values and our rich African and traditional beliefs and practices which abhor those practices you are seeking to promote.

One reader on Lusaka Times website, The Only Living Jay, reminded the now ruling Patriotic Front government that it had a more open stand on homosexuality when it was the opposition party before the 2011 elections, writing:

When in oppozition, the PF waz accuzed of habouring homosexual ideaz in the meetingz they had with some Western Diplomats. It would be interesting to hear what the oppozition will say this time around. Human rights violation??
This non-issue of homosexuality must be handled very carefully with a level-headed approach. To go on rampage arresting the so called gayz or pro-gay activists may have ghastly consequencez. Remember Zambia iz not an island. What exactly doez the constitution say or not say?

Commenter Panda used an anti-gay slur while encouraging Zambians not to give up their anti-homosexuality stance, even if it means losing out on aid from countries more accepting of the sexual orientation:

Hon Lungu has spoken very well. Please country men and women, lets all unit and speak with one voice on this matter. These “homos” might go to the extent of withholding their aid (Like Obama promised) and we wil be suffer a few consequences in our hospitals, schools etc; but let us fight for what we as a nation want. Problem will come in when some people are prepared to bow th these “homos” for a bowl of soup.

However, some Zambians have no problems with homosexuality. Commenter Mushota on Lusaka Times wondered why anti-gay campaigners want to impose their religious beliefs on everybody else. The main argument that Zambians use against homosexuality is that God created a man and a woman:

Mr Lungu [Home Affairs minister], Why victimise them the same argument can be made for homosexuals . Since the beliefs of religious conservatives (generally) are not their beliefs, doesn’t that violate homosexuals’ freedom of religion? We are all entitled to our own beliefs, but we should not expect everybody else to conform to them. Same sex marriage has no logical impact on the everyday lives of religious Zambians but You denying same sex couples the right to marry does have a direct impact on the everyday lives of homosexuals. Marriage may be a religious issue for many but the fact is, we also have civil marriage, which has absolutely nothing to do with religion. Religious groups and churches have every right to deny same sex marriage in their parish, but You have absolutely no right to deny it

Another commenter writing on Zambia Watchdog wrote (the site does not have permanent links for individual comments):

People are so quick to preach about what is right and wrong yet if we were to see the wrongs they have done, we would run away. Some people on this bolg [sic] have rapped [sic] children, men or women and yet they critisize [sic] gay people. Who is more wrong a child molester or a gay person who minds his or her own business. The bible says a lot of things such as thy shall not steal, thy shall not commit adultery, honour thy mother and father etc. Yes there is a right and wrong but who are we to say what is and what is not. [...] By the way I too have Gay friends like Mweemba and some not all, happen to be the nicest people you can ever meet. What they do in private should have nothing to do with how we perceive them.

Reacting to a story about the police's refusal to release the activist, commenter Counselor congratulated him for his courage:

very brave of you Mr Paul Kasonkomona… one day Gay Rights will be recognized even in Zambia and the whole world at large. Its takes more than bravery to come out as homosexual in African society.

Hitting back at the church for its stand on homosexuality, blogger Miss Bwalya (@missbwalya) wrote on Twitter:

@MissBwalya: Wake me up when Church bodies unite in their call to end the ungodly acts of rape, stripping of women and child molestation.

Another Twitter user, Lwanga Mwilu (@lwangamwilu), captured the polarization that goes on among Zambian netizens when discussing gay issues:

@lwangamwilu: The tensions between free speech and hate speech ever so magnified in the gay rights debate #Zambia

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