Kenya: False Gay Marriage Rumor Sparks Kenyan Riots

Unfounded rumors of an impending marriage between two men have sparked waves of violence in the coastal city of Mtwapa. In addition to numerous assaults and arrests of suspected homosexuals, the rioting saw the sacking of a medical facility serving HIV/AIDS patients.

The situation reportedly began when a barber told the imam at his mosque that two men planned to marry on Feb. 12. The imam denounced the plans before his congregation, and local radio stations quickly took up the cause, spreading the rumor widely.

On Feb. 11, an imam and a Christian bishop held a news conference in which they railed against the wedding and specifically excoriated the Mtwapa clinic run by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).

"How can a state institution be involved on the pretext of providing counseling to these criminals?" asked Sheikh Ali Hussein and Bishop Lawrence Chai, the Daily Nation newspaper reported. "We ask the government to shut it down with immediate effect or we will descend on its officials."

KEMRI is a large national organization with 750 staff members whose research is supported by Britain's Oxford University. Its clinic in Mtwapa includes an AIDS program offering counseling and treatment to men who have sex with men.

The day after the press conference, according to Nairobi gay activist Denis Nzioka, a well-organized mob of 200 to 300 armed people surrounded the clinic, which was purported to be the site of the wedding. The clinic's computers and other materials were destroyed, and it was forced to shut down. As a result, many HIV-positive persons who rely on the clinic have been unable to access their medications.

Although the violence has been heavily covered in the national media, Nzioka said all the coverage "was, sadly, very, very homophobic." Hussein used radio broadcasts to urge Kenyans to take part in an anti-gay demonstration in Mtwapa on Feb. 19.