In the Gambia, two international human rights groups are urging President Yahya Jammeh to reject an amendment to the criminal code regarding "aggravated homosexuality."  The amendment calls to increase the punishment for the charge of "aggravated homosexuality"  to life in prison. 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said “the measure would further add to the climate of fear for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, (LGBTI) people in Gambia.” 

“The National Assembly passed a criminal code amendment on the 25th of August, and that criminal code includes several provisions which are extremely problematic if you look at international human rights law,” says Francois Patuel, a campaigner for Amnesty International based in Dakar, Senegal. 

“The first one—it contains a section on “aggravated homosexuality” which could be used to target a segment of the population of the Gambia that’s already being targeted and living in fear because of their sexual orientation,” Patuel said. The language of the proposed law increases their exposure to a sentence of life in prison, he said.

Currently in the Gambia, consensual sex between same-sex adults is a crime with a sentence of up to 14 years in prison if convicted.

Patuel said this law is illegal under international human rights law.

He also points out that the charge of “aggravated homosexuality” is vaguely worded and leaves the door open for various interpretations of what is meant by the term.

“Aggravated homosexuality is defined where the offender is a serial offender.  So, if you are a serial offender for instance, you could be convicted of aggravated homosexuality. “But what does it mean to be a serial offender?” Patuel asked.

Human rights advocates are concerned because the term could be used against people who have been charged with homosexuality in the past. The second time they are charged under the new amendment, they could be facing a life sentence.

Another example of the vagueness of the charge is that someone could be charged with “aggravated homosexuality” if they are HIV-positive.

“People that have contracted HIV, and are living with HIV in the Gambia are already stigmatized, they are already marginalized, and it doesn’t help to further stigmatize them in law,” said the Amnesty International campaigner. 

From a public health perspective, Patuel said if they are suspected of being a homosexual and facing a life sentence, such a charge could discourage people from seeking needed medical assistance or testing,

“The vague wording and the increased sentence could mean that life for homosexuals in Gambia, or life for people that are suspected of being homosexual, would be a lot worse,” said Patuel.