August 4, 2015 at 2:56 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
State Department mum on travel ban against Gambian officials

Yahya Jammeh, Gambia, gay news, Washington Blade

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh owns a $3.5 million mansion in Potomac, Md. (Photo courtesy IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin; courtesy Creative Commons)

A State Department official on Tuesday declined to say whether the U.S. will issue a travel ban against Gambian officials responsible for human rights abuses in their country.

The official in a statement to the Washington Blade cited a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act that requires visa records to remain confidential.

The official said there are “a number of provisions of U.S. law that deny entry to human rights abusers and the State Department applies them in appropriate cases.” The official noted the Obama administration late last year announced 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 because of “the lack of progress with respect to human rights, rule of law, political pluralism and the right to due process.”

“The United States places great importance on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people,” said the official. “We will continue to stand against any efforts to marginalize, criminalize, and penalize vulnerable minorities in a society, including members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. As we have repeatedly made clear, the United States is deeply concerned by continued reports of human rights abuses in the Gambia.”

The official’s comments come after the Blade asked State Department spokesperson Mark Toner during his July 31 press briefing whether the U.S. has any plans to ban Gambian officials from the U.S. and freeze their American assets.

The Human Rights Campaign, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and other LGBT advocacy groups earlier this year called upon the Obama administration to impose a travel ban against Gambian officials responsible for human rights abuses. They have also urged the U.S. to freeze President Yahya Jammeh’s American assets, which include a $3.5 million mansion in Potomac, Md.

Fatou Camara, a journalist and Jammeh’s former press secretary who fled to the U.S. in 2013 after Gambian authorities accused her of seeking to undermine the government, told the Blade on Tuesday it is “unfortunate” the Obama administration has not imposed a travel ban against officials who commit human rights abuses in her West African homeland. Jeffrey Smith of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights agreed.

“It’s time for the strong and repeated U.S. rhetoric on human rights to coincide with concrete action,” he told the Blade. “By now, the international community, and U.S. audiences, are well aware of the ongoing human tragedy that is unfolding in Yahya Jammeh’s Gambia.”

“The fact that Jammeh, his family and inner circle are allowed to freely travel to and own property in the U.S., including a $3.5 million mansion in Maryland, is patently unacceptable,” added Smith. “There are policy options at the U.S.’s disposal, which are specifically designed to stop this from happening, and they should be used.”

Jammeh last fall signed a law under which those convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” face life in prison. A Gambian court last week acquitted three men who had been charged under the draconian statute.

Jammeh has also faced international criticism 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 during his speech at the 2013 U.N. General Assembly described homosexuality as among the “biggest threats to human existence.”

The Obama administration in June 2014 announced it had banned Ugandan officials responsible for human rights abuses against LGBT people and others from entering the U.S. Advocates have also called upon the U.S. to use the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that freezes the assets of Russian citizens and officials responsible for human rights violations and bans them from entering the country, against those behind the Kremlin’s anti-LGBT crackdown.

“It’s important to restrict human rights abusers from accessing the privilege of entering the United States, and the administration should clarify that Gambian human rights abusers who are targeting LGBT people are being denied entry — as they did when announcing sanctions against Ugandan human rights abusers,” said HRC Global Director Ty Cobb.

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

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