Kenya LGBTQ+ dating app blackmail cases go to court

Tuesday May 07 2024

People hold pride flags during the Gay Pride parade. PHOTO | REUTERS


Joe smiled nervously from behind his shades as he emerged from the cramped wood-panelled magistrate's court in Kenya's capital Nairobi.

The slim 24-year-old man, wearing black track pants and a grey hoodie, had just testified how he and his friend had been beaten and robbed by a man they had met on Facebook last year.

"The perpetrator and the three friends who attacked us thought we wouldn't go to the police because we are gay," said Joe, who asked not to be identified by his real name, as he stood outside Milimani Law Courts last month.

"If we are one of the first to seek justice, maybe others will too," he said.

Kenya's LGBTQ+ community has long stayed silent about blackmail and extortion on platforms like Facebook and dating apps like Grindr, afraid of being outed and jailed themselves in a country where gay sex can land you in jail for up to 14 years.

Read: Report: Kenya to lose huge funding if gay practices banned


It is a pattern repeated in other countries where being LGBTQ+ is dangerous, leaving people exposed to entrapment by petty criminals, organised gangs and sometimes even police.

Now, a handful of lawyers in Kenya are helping victims counter these crimes and deliver justice to people often shunned by society.

Kenyan rights groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) and Ishtar-MSM, which provide legal support to LGBTQ+ people, are currently bringing around 10 such cases before the courts.

Kennedy Murunga, a pro bono lawyer working with the two groups on seven cases, including Joe's, said he hoped for some verdicts by the end of the year.

"A positive verdict in any of these cases would be a big win," said Murunga. "It will say to (the LGBTQ+ community), 'look, the courts are here to serve you too.'"

African countries have some of the most prohibitive laws against homosexuality in the world.

Kenya is one of more than 30 African countries where same-sex relations are criminalised. Punishments across the continent range from imprisonment to death.

Homophobic rhetoric has surged in Kenya following the enactment of a strict anti-gay law in neighbouring Uganda last year. A Kenyan opposition lawmaker has proposed a similar bill.

Read: Uganda MPs pass tough anti-gay bill

Dating apps used as a trap

Meeting people online through dating apps and social media is often now the only option for LGBTQ+ Kenyans. But these very platforms are being used to trap victims into a web of blackmail, extortion, and physical and sexual assault.

The NGLHRC said it had received around 100 reports of such crimes last year, while Ishtar-MSM said it received around 20 complaints every month.

"We started coming across these cases about five years ago, but it has been difficult to report them. There is a lot of mistrust in the system, including the police," said Njeri Gateru, NGLHRC's executive director.

The modus operandi is the same, lawyers said.

Criminals pose as potential romantic partners online, gleaning the victim's personal details such as their address, and information about their family and employment.

Victims are lured to secluded locations for a date, where they are beaten, often sexually assaulted and robbed.

In many cases, criminals force the victim to perform sexual acts, taking photos and video which they threaten to use to expose them if they go to the police.

"People can be blackmailed for months before they actually seek any help," said Murunga, adding that many have kept their sexual orientation private from family and employers.

"They have a lot to lose from being exposed."

The reluctance of victims to report the crime is the biggest challenge to get the cases prosecuted.

Those brave enough to seek justice face numerous challenges to receiving justice - from hostile and unsympathetic police to trials that can take more than two years.

Victims can become disillusioned, unable to spend the time and money to attend court hearings and end up losing hope.

Read: Why Kenyans mistrust their courts

Joe said he travelled 10 hours by bus to Nairobi for monthly court hearings, selling chickens from his farm to pay for transport.

"I was left with no way to live or pay the rent," said Joe. "I had to move back to my village near the border with Uganda."

Many like Joe have incurred substantial financial losses and are forced to return to rural areas where they have to lie about their sexuality.

"It's been really difficult," said Joe, who was left with a broken jaw in the attack and robbed of his clothes, phone, several pairs of shoes that he was selling, and more than 6,000 Kenyan Shillings ($45).

Poor moderation

Murunga, Gateru and Ishtar-MSM director Peter Njane said the same perpetrators often targeted different LGBTQ+ clients, and despite victims reporting offenders to the app companies, their profiles often remained active.

"In most cases the apps' community guidelines would not necessarily pick up the reports as a violation of human rights or community guidelines," said Okwara Masafu, programme officer at NGLHRC, referring to poor moderation by the platforms.

Masafu said taking legal action against the apps could be complex and resource intensive as there were no laws in Kenya that directly target platforms on these issues.

Grindr said it had safeguards in place in Kenya, such as alerts informing users they are in a place where being LGBTQ+ put them in danger.

"We are acutely aware that the recent enactment of one of the world's harshest anti-gay laws in Uganda has increased attacks on LGBTQ+ people in Kenya," said a Grindr spokesperson.

Read: Museveni wants anti-gay bill 'strengthened'

The Los Angeles-based firm said it has also built partnerships to support the community in Kenya, including one with a legal aid clinic hotline.

Meta, the company behind Facebook, also said it had safety features for LGBTQ+ individuals, including alerts against potential scammers and the ability to report threatening direct messages.

"We want our platforms to be spaces where the LGBTQ+ community can share their voices and build community," said a Meta spokesperson.

But campaigners from the rights group galck+ and NGLHRC said platforms could do more, including updating community guidelines and having a mechanism to report blackmail and extortion.

Platforms could also require verification of user IDs to create an account and enforce stricter penalties for violating community guidelines, campaigners said.

Joe agrees.

"Even after what happened to me and my friend, I still use the apps. In Kenya, we have no choice as there aren't many places for LGBT people to meet one another," he said.

"We trust and depend on these platforms and they should protect us."