(New York, June 11, 2008) – President Yahya Jammeh’s reported threats to expel or kill lesbian and gay people not only encourage hatred, but also contribute to a climate in which basic rights can be assaulted with impunity, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the president. Human Rights Watch called on Jammeh to completely disavow all such statements, and to work toward repealing the country’s colonial-era sodomy law, which allows arbitrary and discriminatory arrests and invasion of privacy.

Jammeh is reported to have given gays and lesbians 24 hours to leave the country while speaking in the town of Tallinding on May 15, 2008, during a presidential “Dialogue with the People” tour. According to the Gambian newspaper, The Daily Observer, Jammeh was quoted as saying, “We are in a Muslim dominated country and I will not and shall never accept such individuals [homosexuals] in this country.” During the speech he also vowed to “cut off the head” of any homosexual caught. The government has since denied that Jammeh called for decapitating homosexuals, without addressing his other reported threats.

“Neither religion nor culture can justify calls to mob violence and murder,” said Juliana Cano Nieto, researcher with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “To encourage attacks on a country’s population abdicates a leader’s most essential responsibility: ensuring respect for the rights of all.”

Other prominent Gambians have echoed Jammeh’s statements. On May 29, Alhaji Banding Drammeh, president of the Islamic Council of Gambia, told the Associated Press news service: “We thank President Jammeh for leading the battle against homosexuality in Africa. Our culture and religion are totally incompatible with this phenomenon.”

Activists in the region told Human Rights Watch that following these statements at least three Gambian men were detained because police suspected them of homosexual conduct. The Associated Press also reported the arrest on June 2 of two Spanish men for allegedly “making homosexual proposals” to a taxi driver.

“The president must unequivocally disavow the threat of arrests and violence, and work to change the law so that rights are respected,” said Cano Nieto.

Article 144 of Gambia’s 1965 Criminal Code criminalizes homosexual conduct as an “unnatural offence” and provides for a prison sentence of up to 14 years. This is contrary to Gambia’s international human rights commitments.

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 protect the right to equality and non-discrimination.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR and evaluates how states implement it, held in its 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 different African countries, such as Kenya, Sudan, and Egypt, to repeal laws that criminalize homosexual conduct. In 2002, the UN 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.

In a 2003 report, “More Than a Name: State-Sponsored Homophobia and Its Consequences in Southern Africa,” Human Rights Watch and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission documented how politically motivated expressions of prejudice by leaders in Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe had led to both violence and impunity, and put basic rights to privacy, expression, and association in increased danger.