* Ghana minister urges arrests of homosexuals
* Lawyers, rights groups question legal basis for call
ACCRA, July 22 (Reuters) - Human rights activists in Ghana warned on Friday of a hate campaign against homosexuals after a minister called for their arrest and local churches led anti-gay street protests.
Homosexuality is taboo across much of Africa and illegal in 37 countries, although there is a legal grey area over whether it is covered by a Ghanaian law banning “unnatural carnal knowledge”.
Paul Evans Aidoo, minister in charge of Ghana’s oil-producing Western region, called this week for the arrest of anyone found practising gay sex following local media reports of a supposed increase of homosexuals in the region.
“There is a lot of fear and panic in the gay community at the moment,” said MacDarling Cobinnah, executive director of the Accra-based Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights Ghana.
“I don’t know on what basis they are going to arrest people on the street — on the basis that they look gay?” he said.
A noisy debate about homosexuality has been under way since media last month quoted a local health counselling agency as saying there had been an increase in the number of homosexuals in the Western Region, which is seeing an influx in expatriates to work in the mining and offshore oil sector.
Aidoo’s call prompted a confused reaction by local police authorities, who said they had made no such arrests since Monday and that it could be difficult to obtain evidence of suspects engaging in “unnatural carnal knowledge”.
“Arresting this type of person is not going to be easy because you must have proof of the offence — either one person has come to lodge a complaint against the other, or they are caught in the act,” Western Regional Police Commander Ransford Ninson said by telephone.
Ghana has a large and fervently religious Christian community. Churches have long led a crusade against homosexuality, which is often portrayed locally as an “imported” moral aberration. Public displays of homosexual ties are rare.
In 2003, a circuit court in the capital Accra jailed four men for engaging in homosexual activities, media reports said at the time. But rights lawyer Kofi Abotsi said the vagueness of the law meant it was unlikely that Aidoo’s call would lead to mass arrests.
“People should not be worried about it because it does not really mean anything within the context of the law,” he said.
Uganda proposed a draft anti-homosexuality bill in 2009 that would have confronted “repeat offenders” with the death penalty, but by May the legislation had disappeared from parliament’s agenda after pressure by foreign rights activists. (Reporting by Kwasi Kpodo and Clair McDougall; editing by Mark John)