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In Jamaica, fatal attacks push homophobia into the open

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- When gay rights activist Brian Williamson was stabbed to death in June, and jubilant crowds danced around his mutilated body, police said he had been a robbery victim.

When Jamaican dancehall music artists got bumped from US and British concert appearances this fall for lyrics encouraging the killing of gays, people here called the censure a failure to respect free speech.

When Human Rights Watch issued a withering condemnation of homophobia in Jamaica in November and accused police and politicians of condoning rights abuses, government spokesmen rejected the report as lies and nonsense, and a senior police official called for sedition charges to be brought against its authors.

Homosexual acts are prohibited by law in Jamaica and punishable by years in prison. But a spate of attacks on gays, at least two of them fatal, and foreign condemnations have spotlighted this tourism-dependent country's attitude toward homosexuality.

The stigma attached to homosexuality and to people living with HIV/AIDS prevails across much of the Caribbean region, where Victorian-era sodomy laws remain on the books in at least 11 countries and politicians courting fundamentalist Christian constituencies are loath to contest them.

But rights groups point to Jamaica as the most intolerant of the lot.

Some analysts, including Richard Stern, director of Agua Buena Human Rights Association based in Costa Rica, see the hostility as stemming from a profound religious conviction that homosexuality is a sin.

Jamaicans including Kingston taxi driver Dale Bell say they reject homosexuality "because a man is supposed to be with a woman, not another man." Bell adds that his countrymen are deeply intolerant of gays, but "not to the point of killing."

Human Rights Watch researcher Rebecca Schleifer sees the violence against gays as one part of a neglected society lashing out at another.

"It's important to note the context of endemic violence and the failure of police to respond adequately," she said.

"It's a problem for many people, not just gay men. Violence against gay men is just a piece of that."

In the report she prepared for her agency, based in New York, Schleifer said violence against gay men had become so common that a culture of impunity had grown around it.

"Violent acts against men who have sex with men are commonplace in Jamaica," she concluded. "For many, there is no sanctuary from such abuse. Men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women reported being driven from their homes and their towns by neighbors who threatened to kill them if they remained."

The report, based on more than 130 interviews and investigations of two killings and a mob attack on gays in June, detailed routine discrimination by police and healthcare workers. Witnesses told of police standing idle or encouraging attacks on men thought to be homosexual, and of ill treatment faced by people with HIV/AIDS when they seek medical attention.

The report warned that the climate of fear was discouraging Jamaicans from seeking AIDS- prevention education or testing, threatening a further spread of HIV, the virus that causes the disease. Jamaica's HIV infection rate of 1.6 percent is the third-highest outside sub-Saharan Africa, after Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In almost two-thirds of the cases, the virus was transmitted through heterosexual sex.

Jamaican authorities rejected the report as unsolicited interference in their social affairs. Information Minister Burchell Whiteman, who acknowledged that he had not read the full report, said the allegations are justified. Donovan Nelson, spokesman for the National Security Ministry, called the report "nonsense."

Groups such as Jamaica AIDS Support, Jamaicans for Justice, and the country's only gay rights organization -- the Jamaica Federation for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays, or J-FLAG -- endorsed the report and called on the government to prevent violence against gays. They point to the defensive response as an indication that little will change. "We speak, but we hide," Yvonne Artis, a J-FLAG activist, said of the group, which the slain activist Williamson helped found. "What our government does is give other human beings the right to kill homosexuals."

Witnesses of the June 18 hacking death of Victor Jarrett in Montego Bay reported that three police officers had triggered the attack with their public accusation that he was a "batty man," derogative slang alluding to anal intercourse.

A mob that had gathered on the beach to watch the confrontation chased Jarrett when he tried to flee, chanting "gays must die" as they stabbed and stoned him.

J-FLAG maintains a website and telephone hotline for abuse victims but does not publish its address for security reasons. Artis, one of the few gay rights advocates who appears on radio and television talk shows, says her partner dresses as a man in public so that they do not attract attention as a lesbian couple and endanger their families.

Stern, head of Agua Buena, predicted that the recent spotlight on abuses in Jamaica eventually will prompt reform after a face-saving period of denial. "I have a hunch that the government, rather than doing something dramatic as a backlash, will decide to reverse its policy," he said. "They want to save face but at the same time not get singled out by the international press. They know that will be bad for tourism."

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