Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh

Human rights groups have urged President Jammeh of Gambia to not sign a new bill that would increase the punishment for “aggravated homosexuality” to life in prison.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that if enacted the measure will further add to the climate of fear for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in the country.

They stated that the bill violates international human rights law and amounts to persecution on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

“President Jammeh should not approve this profoundly damaging act that violates international human rights law,” said Stephen Cockburn, Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa at Amnesty International. “Gambia’s National Assembly and the President should not endorse state-sponsored homophobia.”

The National Assembly passed the bill for the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act 2014 on August 25.The President has 30 days from that date to sign the law or return it to the National Assembly for further review.

Consensual sex between same-sex adults is already a crime in Gambia, in violation of international human rights law. However, the proposed amendment introduces even harsher sentences for those suspected of being lesbian, bisexual or gay.

The charge of “aggravated homosexuality” carries a life sentence. The charge is vaguely worded and could enable wide-ranging abuses by the authorities, said the groups. Among those who could be charged with “aggravated homosexuality” and imprisoned for life are “repeat offenders” and people living with HIV who are suspected to be gay or lesbian.

“This new law will only heap further stigma on people who are already marginalised and living in a climate of deep fear and hate in Gambia,” said Graeme Reid, LGBT Rights Director at Human Rights Watch.

President Jammeh is unlikely to heed the call to reject the bill. He’s expressed his blatant homophobia in numerous public statements, including at the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, where he declared: “Those who promote homosexuality want to put an end to human existence, it is becoming an epidemic and we Muslims and Africans will fight to end this behaviour.”

In February, he stated, “We will fight these vermin called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes – if not more aggressively.”

In May, President Jammeh threatened Gambians seeking asylum as a result of discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, telling the African news service APA, “If I catch them I will kill them.”

Also in May, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a resolution on the Protection against Violence and other Human Rights Violations against Persons on the basis of their real or imputed Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity. The resolution condemned “the situation of systematic attacks by State and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity.”

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