November 21, 2014 at 9:38 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
State Department ‘concerned’ about Gambia anti-gay law
Yahya Jammeh, Gambia, gay news, Washington Blade

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh signed a draconian bill that would impose a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” (Photo courtesy IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin; courtesy Creative Commons)

The Obama administration is “especially concerned” about a draconian anti-gay measure recently into signed into law in The Gambia, a State Department official said Friday.

Rodney Ford, a State Department spokesperson, conveyed the disapproval in an email to the Washington Blade late Friday. The Associated Press reported in the morning that President Yahya Jammeh signed the bill on Oct. 9, although no government officials have yet notified the country of the new law.

“The United States strongly opposes any legislation that criminalizes consensual relations between adults,” Ford said. “We are especially concerned by the recent decision by The Gambia’s president to sign into law a bill that provides for punishments up to life imprisonment for consensual same-sex conduct between adults.”

Homosexual acts were already illegal in The Gambia, but the new law — much like a similar anti-gay measure in Uganda that was recently struck down in court — reportedly punishes with up to life in prison “aggravated homosexuality,” which targets “serial offenders” and people with HIV or AIDS.

Suspects can also be charged with “aggravated homosexuality” if they’ve engaged in homosexual acts with someone who is under the age 18, disabled or who has been drugged, the AP reports. Individuals can also be charged when they’re the parent or guardian of the other person or “in authority over” him or her, according to the AP.

Ford added the State Department is also “deeply concerned” about reports of arrests and detention in The Gambia of people suspected of being LGBT.

“We urge the Government of The Gambia not to arrest or detain its citizens solely on the basis of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, and to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all its citizens to which they are entitled under The Gambia’s international human rights commitments,” Ford said. “We call on the Government of The Gambia to reverse the deteriorating respect for democracy and human rights.”

According to Amnesty International, passing the law appears to form part of a broader attack on the LGBT community in Gambia. Authorities are reportedly torturing people arrested in raids and threatening them with rape:

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.

Chad Griffin, president of Human Rights Campaign, called on the Obama administration to conduct a full diplomatic review of its relationship with The Gambia.

“These draconian laws have no place in the 21st century, and the United States must send a clear message that the Gambian government cannot trample on the rights of its LGBT citizens,” Griffin said.

The State Department didn’t respond to a follow-up email on whether passage of the anti-gay law would complicate the relationship between the United States and Gambia.

That’s different from when news broke early this year that Uganda President Yoweri Museveni had signed into law a bill punishing LGBT people with life in prison in his country. In February, the Obama administration announced it was conducting a review of its relationship with Uganda.

That review culminated in June when the United States announced it would bar entry for Ugandan officials responsible for anti-LGBT human rights abuses, discontinue or redirect funds for programs with the Ugandan Police Force, the Ugandan Ministry of Health and National Public Health Institute and cancel a U.S.-sponsored “aviation exercise” in the country.

Shawn Gaylord, advocacy counsel for LGBT rights for Human Rights First, said the enactment of the Gambia law is “an alarming setback for the protection of human rights.”

“We are very concerned that this abhorrent law will lead to an increase in the government crackdown on LGBT Gambians, and even greater impunity for violent acts against them,” Gaylord said. “The United States must make it clear to President Jammeh that increased targeting of LGBT people will damage the bilateral relationship.”

Jammeh has a reputation for holding virulently anti-gay views. According to BBC World News, he reportedly pledged in 2008 “stricter laws than Iran” for homosexuality and said he would “cut off the head” of any gay person found in The Gambia. Earlier this year, he was quoted as saying, “We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.”

In August, he was among the Africa leaders who was invited to a White House dinner as part of an Africa Summit and took photos with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council deferred to the State Department on the Gambia anti-gay law.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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