MONROVIA, Liberia -- An anti-gay group in Liberia distributed fliers over the weekend with a hit list of people who support gay rights, and one member of the group threatened to "get to them one by one."
The fliers mark the latest development in an increasingly hostile national debate about gay rights in this country on Africa's western coast.
Lawmakers in February introduced two new pieces of legislation that would make homosexuality punishable by possible jail time. And a vow by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last month to preserve an existing law criminalizing "voluntary sodomy" prompted a statement of concern from the U.S. State Department.
The fliers distributed over the weekend in parts of Liberia's capital were signed by the Movement Against Gay's in Liberia, or MOGAL. The group said those involved in promoting gay rights "should not be given space to get a gulp of air."
"Having conducted a comprehensive investigation, we are convinced that the below listed individuals are gays or supporters of the club who don't mean well for our country," the fliers read. "Therefore, we have agreed to go after them using all means in life."
No individual members of MOGAL signed the flier. But Moses Tapleh, a 28-year-old resident of the main community where the flier was distributed, said he was affiliated with the group and stressed that its threats should be taken seriously.
"We will get to them one by one," Tapleh said. "They want to spoil our country."
Asked what specific action might be taken against those on the list, he said they could be subjected to "dangerous punishments" including "flogging and death."
A relative of one of those targeted, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the person on the list already had received threatening phone calls.
Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, said the emergence of the hit list should put pressure on Liberia's president to take a stance in support of gay rights. Simply refusing to sign the new anti-gay laws, he said, was insufficient.
"She cannot sit on the fence when there's this kind of provocation taking place. She needs to take a clear and unequivocal stance on this issue," Reid said.
Robert Kpadeh, a deputy minister at the Ministry of Information, said the ministry had not heard about the fliers but that it would be open to receiving complaints.
The list includes two men who launched a campaign in January to legalize gay marriage, and who have since been subjected to protests by angry mobs and threats of violence.
That campaign began one month after the United States announced a new government-wide policy to push for the decriminalization of homosexuality overseas. As in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa where homosexuality remains a largely taboo topic, the announcement drew swift condemnation from Liberian officials and media outlets.
Liberian law currently does not explicitly address homosexuality. "Voluntary sodomy" is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison.
One of the two new bills would make same-sex sexual practice a second-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. The other anti-gay bill would make same-sex marriage a first-degree felony, with sentences ranging up to 10 years in prison. Both bills are being reviewed in committee.
The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia has kept quiet throughout Liberia's gay rights debate. In an interview last week, David Bruce Wharton, deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy in the State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, said by phone from Washington that the department was wary of being seen as "seeking to impose Western values on more conservative African societies."
Homophobia is rife in many African countries. Last year, Nigeria's Senate voted in favor of a bill that would criminalize gay marriage, gay advocacy groups and same-sex public displays of affection. A newly added portion of the bill levels 10 years in prison for those found guilty of organizing, operating or supporting gay clubs, organizations and meetings.
And in 2009, a Ugandan legislator introduced a bill that would impose the death penalty for some gays and lesbians. The bill was reintroduced earlier this year, though its author has said the death penalty provision will be dropped.
Even in South Africa, the only African nation to recognize gay marriage, gangs carry out so-called "corrective" rapes on lesbians.
The flier distributed in Liberia warned that the group would begin taking action shortly. "Let these individuals be aware that we are coming after them soon," the flier reads. "We urge them to also begin saying their Lord's prayers."