September 17, 2015 at 12:18 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Report documents widespread human rights abuses in Gambia

Yahya Jammeh, Gambia, gay news, Washington Blade

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has faced widespread condemnation over his country’s human rights record. (Photo courtesy IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin; courtesy Creative Commons)

A report that Human Rights Watch released on Thursday notes anti-LGBT persecution is among the many human rights abuses that continue to take place in Gambia.

The 81-page report — “State of Fear: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture and Killings” — notes that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh last October signed a law that imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality.” Human Rights Watch points out the new statute “had an immediate negative impact.”

The report notes that police and officials with the Gambian National Intelligence Agency “promptly rounded up dozens of men and women on suspicion of their sexual orientation.” It indicates that three men, one woman and a 17-year-old boy were held incommunicado for several weeks at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency where they were beaten.

The report notes “law enforcement harassment of gay men and lesbians turned into a ‘witch hunt’ after Jammeh signed the “aggravated homosexuality” law.

A lesbian woman told Human Rights Watch that she was detained twice last November at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency. She said she provided a list of names the authorities used to “track down and arrest supposed gay and lesbian Gambians” after two men from the Jungulers — a paramilitary force whose members are largely from Yammeh’s presidential guard — beat her.

“They wanted me to say that I am a lesbian and to tell them the names of the lesbians I knew,” said the woman, according to the Human Rights Watch report. “They said they would kill me; they took me behind the NIA (National Intelligence Agency) building and beat me with a fan belt. They forced me to say that I was a lesbian.”

A man told Human Rights Watch that he saw National Intelligence Agency agents detain a man they “suspected of homosexuality” last November. He said the man was held for eight days and was “subjected to regular abuse” before his transfer to a prison outside the Gambian capital of Banjul.

A Gambian court in July acquitted three men who had been charged under the country’s “aggravated homosexuality law.”

Human Rights Watch said more than 20 LGBT Gambians have fled the country since Jammeh signed the “aggravated homosexuality” law. The report indicates others have sought refuge in “remote areas within the country.”

Jammeh threatens to slit throats of gay men

Gambia is among the more than 70 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

The report notes Jammeh has “a long history of virulent anti-gay hate speech” that includes a threat he made during a May rally that he would slit the throats of gay men who live in his country. Human Rights Watch also indicates that LGBT Gambians faced arbitrary arrests, employment discrimination and other abuses before their country’s president signed the “aggravated homosexuality law.”

A gay man who said he was arrested during a 2012 birthday party with 17 other men told Human Rights Watch that police took them out of their cell and told “everyone we are homosexual.” He said a court later acquitted them of committing “unnatural acts,” but they faced continued harassment and discrimination.

U.S. urged to impose travel ban on Gambian officials

A man who asked the Washington Blade not to publish his name said Gambian authorities in late 2012 detained him for allegedly passing information from the government to foreign journalists.

The man, who had worked in Jammeh’s office before his arrest, said he was unable to communicate with his wife for the first six months of his detention. He also noted to the Blade on Wednesday during a telephone interview that he had no access to legal representation, medical care or food.

“I was treated very badly,” he said, noting he was denied access to a shower for several weeks at a time. “I was treated worse than the devil.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly criticized Gambia over its human rights record.

The White House last December announced the country is no longer eligible to take part in a duty-free trade program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to access American markets because of “the lack of progress with respect to human rights, rule of law” and other issues.

Among the recommendations in the Human Rights Watch report is for the U.S. and other countries and international bodies, such as the European Union, to impose travel bans or “other targeted sanctions” against Gambian officials responsible for human rights abuses in their country. A State Department spokesperson in July declined to tell the Blade whether Washington has any plans to implement such measures.

The man who once worked for Jammeh’s office was able to flee to a country he asked the Blade not to identify. He said the Obama administration “has done little or nothing” in response to Gambia’s human rights record.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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