Karel is a committed human rights activist in Burkina Faso, fighting in particular for LGBTQI+ rights. He regularly works with incarcerated LGBTQI+ people, providing them with legal assistance and mediation services. Himself a member of the LGBTQI+ community, Karel was arrested and detained at Ouagadougou’s central police station.
Prison Insider spoke to him about his personal and professional experiences.
We have to sleep right on the ground.
“Crammed in like sardines”
Karel was twice detained at Ouagadougou’s central police station. This is his story.
Conditions in the holding cells at the central police station are inhumane, and this is true universally, not just for LGBTQ people. It’s a totally dark place, overpopulated, and there are no toilets. We defecate and sleep there, along with mosquitoes and ants. It reeks all day long.
At night, we have no choice but to pile up like sardines. There’s an earth floor, no tile or cement. We have to sleep right on the ground. Many people have problems with their skin upon release. It gets very hot in Burkina and the building is tiny, holding 15 to 20 people. Overpopulation makes it hard to even breathe.
There is zero privacy. We’re naked, packed tightly against each other, and run a real risk of being raped.
And that’s even before you get to mistreatment from law enforcement. They treat us as if we were cattle. In these conditions, we spend entire days, sometimes up to ten.
Few people come out, as they fear being poisoned, suffocated in their sleep or rejected by their loved ones.
“A peacock at the zoo”
In Burkina Faso, the first person to file a complaint is the one who’s believed. You get locked up even before an investigation is conducted. There is no presumption of innocence –- it’s up to the incarcerated person to prove that they’re innocent. That’s not easy, and it gets even more complicated when sexual orientation or gender identity are involved. You can be publicly humiliated by law enforcement. That happened to a transgender woman I know –- they stuck her in the police station courtyard like a peacock in a zoo. People walked by and took her photo. She was humiliated by the authorities. Information is hard to come by and you can’t call someone to ask for help.
At times, being released means settling out of court. You might be innocent, but confess just to get out. Sometimes you need to pay off your accuser.
Being LGTBQI+ is very challenging in Burkina. Few people come out, as they fear being poisoned, suffocated in their sleep or rejected by their loved ones. Rejection is the best- case scenario.
Incarcerated LGBTQI+ people sometimes ask me for legal assistance. I recently helped two young people who were arrested for cross-dressing, which is illegal in Burkina. It’s considered identity theft. These two individuals were quickly sent to prison and a member of the LGBTQI+ community was alerted to their case, and informed us. We were able to get legal aid involved and get them released. Unfortunately, one of these individuals was infected with HIV while detained. In prison, rape isn’t rare. People who don’t have the financial resources to stay safe sometimes agree to be protected by the prison “boss” in exchange for sexual favors.
Translated by Molly Rapaport, proofread by William Avery Hudson