June 11, 2008

Dear President Jammeh,

On behalf of Human Rights Watch, I write to express grave concern over recent reports that you have made statements encouraging violence against lesbian and gay people in Gambia. We are further concerned that police in Banjul have detained or summoned for questioning at least four people in Banjul after your statements.

In the town of Tallinding on May 15, 2008, during the presidential “Dialogue with the People” tour you ordered security services — as reported by the official Gambian State House website — to “seek out and arrest any person who is gay,” close down any motel “harboring gays,” and expel “suspected gays” from dwellings.

Additionally, the BBC reported that at the same appearance you vowed to “cut off the head” of any homosexual. The Daily Observer reported that you said, “We are in a Muslim dominated country and I will not and shall never accept such individuals [homosexuals] in this country.”

Your government has subsequently denied, in a press release from the Department of Foreign Affairs of Gambia on May 27, 2008, that you made any statements related to decapitating or driving homosexuals out of the country. (The press release does not mention the reported statements that the police should “arrest any person who is gay,” close down any motel “harboring gays,” and expel “suspected gays” from dwellings).

If, in fact, you made no such statements — despite the claims of three media organs, including both official and independent ones — it is critical not just to deny them, but to disassociate yourself from them altogether. Such calls for violence against members of the Gambian population urge the state to violate its human rights obligations, and create a climate of impunity where people will go unprotected, and private and vigilante violence unpunished. Already these reported words have had both echoes, and apparent consequences.

Forces in civil society have added their calls for exclusion. On May 29, 2008, Alhaji Banding Drammeh, President of the Islamic Council of Gambia, echoed your supposed statements. He told the Associated Press: “We thank President Jammeh for leading the battle against homosexuality in Africa. Our culture and religion are totally incompatible with this phenemenon.”

Moreover, on May 16, 2008, a day after your public declarations, Gambian police arrested two men from Senegal [L’As, May 19, 2008]. Human rights activists told Human Rights Watch these men were detained for two weeks without charge in the police station in Kairaba Avenue apparently under the suspicion of being homosexuals. They also informed us that shortly after the reports of your statements the police brought a young man in for questioning, accused of homosexual conduct.

Gambia ratified the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights in June 1999. It acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1979. Both these treaties protect the rights to privacy, equality and non-discrimination.

Article 3 of the African Charter establishes equality before the law and article 26 provides that “Every individual shall have the duty to respect and consider his fellow beings without discrimination, and to maintain relations aimed at promoting, safeguarding and reinforcing mutual respect and tolerance.”

Similarly, articles 2 and 26 of the ICCPR protect the right to equality and non-discrimination. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which authoritatively interprets the ICCPR and evaluates how states implement it, held in the 1994 case of Toonen v Australia that sexual orientation is a status protected against discrimination under the treaty’s provisions. The Committee has repeatedly called on states, including African countries such as such as Kenya, Sudan, and Egypt, to repeal laws that criminalize homosexual conduct. In 2002, The Committee said Egypt “should refrain from penalizing private sexual relations between consenting adults.” In 2005 it called on Kenya to “repeal Section 162 of the Penal Code,” which criminalizes homosexuality.

Article 144 of Gambia’s criminal code punishes consensual sexual acts between men with 14 years in prison. This rule itself violates human rights protections. It is incumbent on your government to move toward its repeal. To compound its effects of stigma and exclusion by actively calling for violence based on sexual orientation, as you have reportedly done, abdicates one of the most important responsibilities of political leadership: to respect, protect, and promote the human rights of all.

We urge you to publicly disavow threats and vilification directed against gays and lesbian people in Gambia. We ask you to affirm publicly and without equivocation that all people should enjoy their rights regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity. We also call upon you to ask the police to release all persons still detained on charges or under suspicion of homosexual conduct, and to desist from further arrests.

Sincerely,

Scott Long
Director
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program
Human Rights Watch