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In Gambia, Being LGBT Now Means Torture, Life in Jail

In Gambia, Being LGBT Now Means Torture, Life in Jail


The west African nation has been cracking down on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people -- and will now throw away the key for those convicted of "aggravated homosexuality."

Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, infamous for his frequent violent antigay public statements, has signed a law that calls for lifelong prison sentences for acts of "aggravated homosexuality," reports the Associated Press.

The Gambian Parliament passed the legislation -- which is nearly identical to Uganda's infamous "Jail the Gays" law -- in September, prompting a marked increase in detentions, arrests, and torture of those suspected to be LGBT, according to Amnesty International.

The AP reports that Gambian authorities have arrested five men, a 17-year-old boy, and three women, subjecting them to torture and demanding they reveal the names of others "guilty" of homosexuality. Jammeh said in May that if LGBT Gambians tried to leave the country and report human rights abuses, "if I catch them I will kill them."

With language suspiciously similar to a law that was in force in Uganda until it was overturned by a constitutional court in August, Gambia's new law defines "aggravated homosexuality" as acts committed by "serial offenders" and people living with HIV or AIDS, as well as someone who has sex with a minor or a disabled person-- or someone under the influence of drugs. The law also equates pedophilia with homosexuality, prescribing lifelong prison terms for parents or guardians who have sex with same-sex dependents.

"These arrests took place amid an intensifying climate of fear for those perceived to have a different sexual orientation or gender identity," said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for west and central Africa, in a written statement. Amnesty contends that Gambia has been quietly enforcing the law since October.

The formal enactment of the draconian law makes Gambia one the most brutal of 36 African countries that prescribe prison sentences for homosexuality. Gambia becomes the fourth African nation to impose lifetime prison sentences for homosexuality -- the others are Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Zambia. Four African countries call for the execution of those "convicted" of being gay: Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, and Nigeria. There are only 12 African nations where homosexuality is not criminalized, and just one, South Africa, with marriage equality.

"This unacceptable crackdown reveals the scale of state-sponsored homophobia in Gambia," Cockburn's statement continued. "Intimidation, harassment, and any arrest based solely on sexual orientation or gender identity is in clear violation of international and regional human rights law. The Gambian authorities must immediately stop this homophobic assault."

But pressure from human rights groups that have long been critical of Jammeh is unlikely to move the dictator, who seized power in a 1994 military coup. According to information available at the Central Intelligence Agency's website, the self-appointed president does not allow any type of political activity inside Gambia.

Jammeh is a notorious homophobe who last year used the floor of the United Nations General Assembly to spout antigay dogma. In his U.N. address, he reportedly classified same-sex attraction as one of the three "biggest threats to human existence."

Human rights groups are calling for President Obama to act decisively against Gambia for enacting the new law.

"The enactment of this bill is an alarming setback for the protection of human rights in Gambia, where members of the LGBT community face an ongoing government crackdown that includes arrests, detention, and abuse," said Human Rights First's chief advocacy counsel, Shawn Gaylord, in a written statement. "We urge the Obama Administration to immediately publicly condemn this legislation and to explore all available avenues for response."

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Thom Senzee