Gambian President’s 20-Year Assault on Human Rights Just Got Worse for LGBT Community

For too long, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has peddled hate and abused with impunity lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in The Gambia. Jammeh scapegoats LGBT people to deflect attention from failed leadership that has lately brought the country to the brink of famine, food shortages and a quick devaluation of its currency.

Already hostile to basic human rights and with a decades-long record of atrocities, Jammeh’s reputation as a tyrant and torturer was well documented, when in October, he quietly added a new repressive law to the books outlawing “aggravated homosexuality,” which carries a penalty of life in prison. In the latest crackdown, 14 people were detained in December and held incommunicado in prisons long known as among the world’s worst. Eleven were released this week. The others will be charged in the coming week. Local lawyers are representing them.

The arrests came as Jammeh delivered yet another rant, this time condemning the “evil empire of homosexuals” and wishing they would go down the “dirty drain and garbage of hell.”

President Yahya Jammeh.
Photo courtesy IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, the deteriorating situation for LGBT Gambians has led an estimated 40 people to flee to Senegal. Those released from prison are expected to join them.

This latest episode in Jammeh’s repressive history raises the threat level for LGBT Gambians. The country already makes consensual sex between same-sex adults a criminal offense, in violation of international human rights law.

The charge of “aggravated homosexuality” targets “serial offenders” and people living with HIV or AIDS. Aggravated homosexuality carries a penalty of life in prison. Vaguely worded, it could be used by the authorities for wide-ranging abuses and to imprison LGBT Gambians with impunity.

In November, Gambia was once again heavily criticized for its human rights record during the country’s Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations. Weeks later, the U.N. Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, were denied access to detention centers where prisoners are believed to be at high risk of torture. 

In the weeks following the signing of the new “aggravated homosexuality” bill authorities have reportedly targeted 200 “alleged” homosexuals for arrest, according to Reuters. Over recent weeks, human rights organizations have reported raids where gays and lesbians were arrested, threatened with rape, and pressured to confess to homosexual acts.

Many LGBT Gambians have fled to Senegal for refuge.

The Gambian law basically mirrors section 3 of Uganda’s notorious Anti-Homosexuality Act, which was overturned by the Constitutional Court last August. The secrecy around Gambia’s process resulted in a muted global outcry, however, unlike the Uganda situation, which drew worldwide rebuke.

This harsh new penalty and crackdown is an utterly depraved effort to further stigmatize and threaten a community that already lives in constant and deep fear of being arrested, tortured and abused, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.

In the past, Jammeh has ordered gays and lesbians to leave The Gambia or face having their heads cut off; has called them “vermin” and has referred to homosexuality as an “epidemic.”

The latest crackdown continues his onslaught against human rights. It’s time for the world to confront Jammeh and demand that human rights be upheld for all Gambians.