WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama voiced strong support for gay rights in Africa on Thursday as he began a trip to the continent, bucking calls from some African leaders to keep his views on such controversial issues to himself.
Obama, who departed Washington late Thursday for a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia, had faced criticism from rights groups and growing calls to press the issue aggressively while in a region known for a bleak record on human rights. In an interview with the BBC, Obama said he had been "blunt" with African leaders about gay rights in the past and planned to make it part of his agenda for this trip, too.
Asked about Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto, a critic of gay rights in the U.S., Obama said: "Yeah, well, I disagree with him on that, don't I?"
"Everybody deserves fair treatment — equal treatment — in the eyes of the law and the state," Obama said. "And that includes gays, lesbians, transgender persons."
The first sitting U.S. president to visit Kenya, Obama will also be visiting his ancestral homeland when he arrives Friday to attend a business summit and meetings with President Uhuru Kenyatta. Obama's late father was from Kenya, and in the interview, Obama cited his relatives still in Kenya to argue he knows how the country's history of mistreating women and girls has held Kenya back.
"I think those same values apply when it comes to different sexual orientations," Obama said.
A number of Kenyan politicians and religious leaders have warned Obama in outspoken terms that any overtures on gay rights would not be welcomed in Kenya, where gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
Yet as he prepared for his visit to Africa, he faced equally determined pressure from Human Rights Watch and other groups, who urged Obama in a letter to put the "pressing human rights concerns" in Kenya and Ethiopia "at the forefront of your discussions."
"While both countries face real security threats, we are concerned by the way in which each government has responded, often with abusive security measures and increased efforts to stifle civil society and the media," the groups wrote.
After his visit to Kenya, Obama will fly Sunday to Ethiopia, becoming the first U.S. president to travel there. He'll confer with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and address the African Union, which is headquartered in Ethiopia.
Ten members of Congress were traveling to Kenya aboard Air Force One with the president, including Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, other caucus members and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the lone Republican.
Obama infrequently takes lawmakers with him on trips. Flake is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa and has supported Obama's policies on immigration and re-engagement with Cuba. A different group of 10 lawmakers was scheduled to travel back from Ethiopia with Obama.
The White House says the trip, Obama's fourth to the continent as president, is an important opportunity for him to promote trade and investment with Africa, but to also check in with important Horn of Africa partners in the fight against Islamic extremism. The U.S. and Kenya work together to counter al-Shabab, the Islamic militant group based in neighboring Somalia, and Ethiopia shares intelligence with the U.S.
But both countries have also garnered a reputation for shortcomings when it comes to human rights.
Ruto, who will cross paths with Obama during official events on the trip, is also under indictment by the International Criminal Court for alleged links to violence after the 2007 election. The ICC recently dropped similar charges against Kenyatta, an outcome that increased the odds of an Obama visit to the East African nation.
The Ethiopian government earlier this month released several journalists and bloggers who had been arrested in April 2014 on charges of incitement and terrorism, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The journalism watchdog group ranks it as the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa.
"With all the countries in Africa, and a visit to two countries, to pick Ethiopia is a very bad optic," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.
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