The Human Rights Campaign, the Council for Global Equality, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights First, GLAAD, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the Global Justice Institute with the Metropolitan Community Churches, the National Center for Transgender Equality, Out and Equal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in a letter urged the White House to institute a visa ban on Gambian President Yahya Jammeh and other “key Gambian officials” who “have promoted discriminatory laws and who are responsible for grave human rights abuses.” The groups also called upon the Obama administration to freeze Jammeh’s U.S. assets that include a multi-million dollar home in Potomac, Md.
“It is not too late for the United States to send President Jammeh and his regime a clear and unequivocal message: human rights violations will not be tolerated and the U.S. government will respond with actions, as well as with strong condemnation,” reads the letter. “It is crucial that the United States take concrete action whenever countries enact discriminatory laws, and the Gambia should be no exception.”
The letter comes against the backdrop of growing outrage over Gambia’s LGBT rights record.
Jammeh — who came to power in the small West African country in a 1994 coup — last fall signed into a law a bill under which those convicted of “aggravated” homosexuality” face life in prison. Reports from human rights advocates and others indicate Gambian authorities subsequently arrested more than a dozen people they accused of being gay.
Jammeh last February described gay men as “vermin” during a speech that commemorated Gambia’s independence from the U.K. The Gambian president said during a 2013 speech at the U.N. General Assembly that homosexuality is among the three “biggest threats to human existence.”
The European Union in 2014 delayed a 150 million euro aid package to nation after Jammeh failed to implement more than a dozen reforms that include the repeal of the death penalty. The Obama administration last month announced that Gambia is no longer eligible to take part in the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a duty-free trade program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to access U.S. markets.
Jammeh earlier this month appeared to sharply criticize the U.S. and other countries that have criticized his government’s LGBT rights record in a speech he gave roughly two weeks after two American citizens allegedly led a failed coup to overthrow his government.
“Let me make it very clear that if they think that they can be homosexuals and want to impose homosexuality on the globe, they are doomed,” said Jammeh during his speech to soldiers in the Gambian capital of Banjul. “They say I am intolerant…and that homosexuals are a minority that is being oppressed in this country.”
Obama’s response to Gambian LGBT rights record criticized
The White House has faced criticism over what some advocates see as its failure to adequately respond to Gambia’s human rights record.
Obama last August faced sharp criticism over his decision to invite Jammeh to the White House during a summit that drew dozens of African heads of state to Washington. Amadou Scattred Janneh, a Gambian human rights advocate who was arrested in 2011 for distributing pro-democracy t-shirts, during a roundtable at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ office in D.C. last month questioned why the U.S. has not frozen Jammeh’s assets and continues military cooperation with his country.
“We want the U.S. to coordinate actions with allies and finally the U.S. government to support groups working to change the Gambia to a nation of laws and one that respects the fundamental rights of all its citizens,” said Janneh.
Bernadette Meehan, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said last month the U.S. “is deeply concerned by continued reports of human rights abuses” in Gambia that include the “aggravated homosexuality” law and ongoing anti-gay persecution in the country.
“Protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, and we will be guided by these values as we respond to these negative developments in the Gambia,” said Meehan.
HRC and the other groups who wrote to Obama on Friday said they “commend” the decision to remove Gambia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
“The situation in the Gambia remains dire,” they said, specifically referring to the passage of the “aggravated homosexuality” law. “We believe more can be done.”
Fatou Camara, a journalist and Jammeh’s former press secretary who fled to the U.S. last year after Gambian authorities accused her of seeking to undermine the government, on Saturday described the letter as “a great move.”
“I hope the Obama administration, which consists of men and women of goodwill in the civilized world will recognize the mortal threat President Yahya Jammeh poses to the Gambian people who have endured terrible suffering for the last 20 years,” Camara told the Washington Blade.
The White House last June issued a travel ban against Ugandan officials responsible for human rights abuses. Yelena Mizulina, a Russian lawmaker who sponsored her country’s law that bans so-called gay propaganda to minors, is among the Russian officials against whom the Obama administration issued sanctions in March 2014 over the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine.