Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh and his wife, Zineb Jammeh, arrive for the official U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, August 5, 2014.

(Dakar) – Gambia’s recent passage of a homophobic law puts the already persecuted lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community at even greater risk of abuse, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today.

The new crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” which carries punishments of up to life in prison, is part of a criminal code President Yahya Jammeh approved on October 9, 2014, documents uncovered in mid-November show. Among those who could be charged with “aggravated homosexuality” are “serial offenders” and people living with HIV who are deemed to be gay or lesbian. Exactly what constitutes “homosexuality” or a “homosexual act” is not defined in Gambian law. That makes Gambia’s criminalization of homosexual activity – which already violates international law – even more likely to be used broadly and arbitrarily.

“The new law treats consensual, private sexual activity between adults of the same sex – which should not be a crime – in the same way as rape and incest,” said Steve Cockburn, deputy regional director for West and Central Africa at Amnesty International.

“The vague and imprecise provisions of this law could be used to arrest and detain anyone who is believed to be gay or lesbian, and contributes to the already severe climate of hostility and fear for LGBTI people in the country.” 

The Gambian authorities failed to acknowledge the enactment of the “aggravated homosexuality” law, despite repeated questioning during a United Nations review of the country’s human rights record on October 28. Legislation in force in the country already criminalizes consensual, private sexual activity between adults of the same sex, in violation of international human rights law.

Passing the law appears to form part of a broader attack on the LGBTI community in Gambia. At least three women, four men, and a 17-year-old boy were arrested between November 7 and 13 and threatened with torture because of their presumed sexual orientation. Another six women were arrested on November 18 and 19 and remain in detention, a member of the LGBTI community in Gambia reported.

The detainees said that they were told that if they did not “confess,” including by providing the names of others, a device would be forced into their anus or vagina to “test” their sexual orientation. Such treatment would violate international law prohibiting torture and ill-treatment.

“Arresting and torturing people based on their sexual orientation is shameful, and inventing new crimes with even harsher sentences is scandalous,” Cockburn said. “Gambia’s new law not only flouts African human rights obligations, it violates its own constitution, which says that all people must be equal and free from discrimination before the law.”

President Jammeh should have used his constitutional powers to reject this homophobic bill, which was proposed by the National Assembly on August 25, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.

“President Jammeh’s inflammatory public statements against LGBTI people have been put into practice through this odious law and the witch hunt that followed its secretive passage,” said Monica Tabengwa, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The law and practice are an affront to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights resolution condemning violence against LGBTI people and calling for those responsible to be brought to justice.”