Omar Faye told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview that nobody “can say any gay person has been killed in the Gambia.” The ambassador also dismissed criticisms over President Yahya Jammeh’s anti-LGBT rhetoric, including his claim during a speech earlier this year that he would slit the throats of gay men in his country.
“It was an expression that was said in our local language that was twisted around,” Faye told the Blade.
Faye spoke with the Blade a day after Human Rights Watch released an 81-page report that documents anti-LGBT persecution in the West African country.
The report notes Gambian police and officials with the country’s National Intelligence Agency “promptly rounded up” dozens of people “on suspicion of their sexual orientation” last fall after Jammeh signed a law that imposes a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality.”
Anti-gay law prompted man to flee Gambia
A man who asked the Blade not to publish his name said on Thursday during a telephone interview that he fled Gambia a few weeks after Jammeh signed the anti-gay statute.
“They were going house to house, collecting people,” said the man, a former bar manager who asked the Blade not to name the country to which he fled.
The man told the Blade that he was among the 18 people who were arrested during an April 2012 birthday party for “promoting homosexuality.”
He said the authorities initially released him, but police told him to return to the police station a few days later. The man told the Blade he was once again arrested because he denied seeing any same-sex sexual activity during the party.
“I know they got information that I was gay,” said the man. “They just took me and put me inside the cell. They started torturing me to say those boys were marrying the grooms, it was a gay party and stuff so they can use it as evidence in a court of law. They were beating me, hitting me, torturing me.”
The man told the Blade the abuse he said he experienced while in custody exacerbated a previous injury to his left leg.
Prosecutors later dismissed the charges against the man and his co-defendants because of a lack of evidence, but he told Human Rights Watch the police took their fingerprints and registered them as “homosexuals.” The man told the Blade that he was unable to find a job after the case and his father disowned him because of it.
“It was so hard for us,” said the man.
The man told the Blade that he feels Jammeh speaks against LGBT Gambians in order to deflect attention away from what he described are the country’s other problems.
“You have a lot of things to consider in your country,” said the man. “Gay people don’t kill people. Gays in the Gambia are hardworking. They are smart. They are doing their own things. They don’t do crimes.”
U.S. remains mum on travel ban against Gambian officials
State Department spokesperson John Kirby on Thursday told the Blade during his daily press briefing the U.S. was “still reviewing” the Human Rights Watch report.
“I can assure you that the United States continues to place great importance on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people and we’re going to continue to stand against any efforts to marginalize, criminalize and penalize vulnerable members of a society, including members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community,” said Kirby.
Human Rights Watch in its report urges the U.S. and other countries to consider travel bans or “other targeted sanctions” against Gambian officials who commit human rights abuses in their country.
A State Department spokesperson in July declined to tell the Blade whether the Obama administration plans to implement such measures. Kirby on Thursday said he did not have “any decisions with regards to” the issue.
”We have a variety of tools at our disposal and we’re not afraid to use them when we feel it’s warranted, but I wouldn’t get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made,” Kirby told the Blade.
Faye told the Blade “a lot of great things have happened” in Gambia since Jammeh came to power during a 1994 coup.
He noted Jammeh has worked to improve the country’s infrastructure and education system. Faye added the Gambian president recently pardoned more than 300 prisoners, including those who had been sentenced to death.
“When the president took over, there really wasn’t much in the Gambia,” Faye told the Blade. “There are problems. Every country has problems, but we should look for ways to overcome all of this.”
Jeffrey Smith of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a Washington-based organization that frequently criticizes Jammeh and his government, dismissed Faye’s comments.
“The fact of the matter is that Gambia has not turned a new page,” Smith told the Blade on Friday.
Smith pointed to the Blade that Alhagie Ceesay, a manager of an independent Gambian radio station, has been in jail for two months for “committing an act of journalism.” Smith further noted Gambia’s human rights record — arbitrary detentions, cracking down on freedom of assembly and speech and torture — has deteriorated since an attempted coup against Jammeh’s government last December.
“Our own research, as well as the new Human Rights Watch report, shed undeniable light on these uncomfortable facts,” said Smith.