Fatou Camara, a journalist and President Yahya Jammeh’s former press secretary who fled to the U.S. in 2013 after Gambian authorities accused her of seeking to undermine the government, broke the news on her Twitter page. She told the Washington Blade that the three men who were held at a maximum-security prison in the Gambian capital of Banjul for nearly eight months had been released.
Three men detained for almost 8 months for 'aggravated homosexuality' in The Gambia were all released from custody… http://t.co/3to0zwLzsf
— Fatu Camara (@Fatushow) July 31, 2015
LGBT advocacy groups welcomed the men’s acquittal and release, but noted widespread LGBT rights abuses continue to take place in Gambia.
“While their release does not guarantee their freedom, and the Gambia remains a tremendously dangerous place to be LGBT, there is no question that their acquittal is wonderful news to the large international community that has been monitoring their case,” said Ty Cobb of the Human Rights Campaign.
Jeff Smith of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights told the Blade these “symbolic gestures in Gambia are certainly a welcome development.” He stressed he nevertheless remains “highly dubious until real democratic reform and measures that respect basic human rights in the country are implemented.”
“A good place to start would be with Gambia’s anti-gay law, which criminalizes same-sex conduct between adults in violation of the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination for LGBT people,” Smith told the Blade.
State Department spokesperson Mark Toner on Friday took a similar tone during his daily press briefing as he responded to the Blade’s question about the men’s acquittal.
“You know where we stand on gay rights,” said Toner. “They’re human rights, so we take them very seriously. And we would welcome their release.”
Men faced life in prison under anti-gay law
Those convicted under the “aggravated homosexuality” law that Jammeh signed last fall face life in prison. Reports indicate that more than a dozen people have been arrested under the statute since it took effect.
American officials have repeatedly criticized Jammeh over his anti-LGBT rhetoric, including a threat he made during a May rally that he would slit the throats of gay men who live in his country. The Gambian president has previously described gay men as “vermin” and said homosexuality is one of the three “biggest threats to human existence.”
Jammeh has been in power in the small West African country since 1994. Three American citizens late last year allegedly tried to overthrow the Gambian president’s government in a failed coup attempt.
The Obama administration in December 2014 announced that Gambia is no longer eligible to take part in a duty-free trade program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to access U.S. markets. The president in last August faced widespread criticism from Gambian human rights advocates and others when he invited Jammeh to the White House during a summit that drew dozens of African heads of state to the nation’s capital.
Jammeh owns a $3.5 million mansion in the wealthy Montgomery County suburb of Potomac.
HRC, along with the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and other LGBT advocacy groups earlier this year called upon the Obama administration to ban Gambian officials responsible for human rights abuses from entering the U.S. They also urged the White House to freeze Jammeh’s American assets.
“The Obama administration should continue to hold the Gambian government accountable for President Jammeh’s gross human rights violations,” Cobb told the Blade on Friday.
The State Department did not immediately return the Blade’s request for comment on whether it plans to issue a travel ban against Gambian officials who perpetrate human rights abuses in their country or freeze Jammeh’s assets in the U.S.