Four of the victims were marched to a police station, where they allegedly were kicked and punched by police officers who yelled pejoratives at them, said Ifeanyi Orazulike of the International Center on Advocacy for the Right to Health.
Police threatened that the men would be incarcerated for 14 years, he said, the maximum prison sentence under Nigeria's new Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act, dubbed the "Jail the Gays" law. Activists have warned the law could trigger attacks such as the one perpetrated in the early hours of Thursday morning in Abuja, the capital of Africa's most populous nation.
Mob justice is common in Nigeria and civil rights organizations have been warning for years of an increase in community violence and the government's failure to curb acts in which people have been beaten to death for perceived crimes such as theft.
"Since the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act was signed, we have expressed concern as a friend of Nigeria that it might be used by some to justify violence against Nigerians based on their sexual orientation," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Friday. "Recent attacks in Abuja deepen our concern on this front."
The police spokeswoman for the Federal Capital Territory, Deputy Superintendent Altine Daniel, said she was unaware of the attack but would try to get details for The Associated Press.
Orazulike said he got a panicked email from a colleague who said he was hiding from a mob of 40 people who struck around 1 a.m. Thursday, going from house to house saying their mission was "to cleanse" the area of gays. He said they used pieces of wood and iron to beat up 14 young men. Orazulike said he drove from his home at 4 a.m. Thursday to save the man in Gishiri, a shantytown with mud roads near central Abuja.
Those attacked are in hiding and too scared to speak to reporters, he said, recounting their story.
"They were told 'If you come back, we will kill you.'"
The walls of houses where the men lived have been painted with graffiti declaring "Homosexuals, pack and leave," he said.
The New York-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission condemned the attack and warned, "It is important that people understand that this kind of violence can happen to anyone and that the government seems to have abdicated its responsibility to protect people from violence and impunity."
Orazulike said he went to the police station later Thursday and met with a senior officer who ordered the four men released because there was no evidence that they were gay and they had not been caught having sex.
Four were severely injured and others suffered bruises, he said. They were treated at his organization's clinic because they were afraid to go to the hospital.
"They said the police slapped and kicked them and swore at them," he said.
Dorothy Aken'Ova, executive director of Nigeria's International Center for Reproductive Health and Sexual Rights, said she stayed up all night Wednesday trying to get police and Civil Defence to send officers to the scene after she got a phone call from a man who was being attacked.
"Instead of helping them, apparently some of them were arrested," she told AP. "None of the (law enforcement) agents responded to our distress calls."
Dozens of allegedly gay people have been arrested since President Goodluck Jonathan signed the bill into law in January. It not only forbids gay marriage, which carries a 14-year jail sentence, it makes it a crime for anyone, straight or homosexual, to hold a meeting of gays or to advocate human rights for gays. Convicted offenders can be jailed for up to 10 years.
U.S. President Barack Obama's initiative to promote the rights of homosexuals has been rebuffed in Africa, where Uganda also is considering a draconian law carrying penalties of up to life imprisonment for certain gay acts. Many Africans believe homosexuality is an evil import from the West.
However, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, James F. Entwistle, on a recent radio program assured Nigerians that the United States would not be cutting aid because of the new anti-gay law.