The Gambia's notorious dictator Yahya Jammeh recently intensified his anti-homosexual rhetoric, threatening to slit the throats of gay men living in the small West African nation while seeming to claim that the West could do nothing to stop him, according to a translation provided to VICE News of a speech he made last week on a nationwide agricultural tour.
The 49-year-old president, who has ruled the country since 1994, was speaking during a tour stop last week in the country's North Bank Region when he delivered his latest inflammatory comments.
"If you do it [in the Gambia] I will slit your throat — if you are a man and want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it," he said in the Wolof language to a crowd in the town of Farafeni as he spoke about fostering a healthy atmosphere for the country's youth.
Fatu Camara, a Gambian journalist and former press secretary to Jammeh who fled the Gambia in 2013 to escape sedition charges against her, told VICE News that the reference to white people was likely a nod to Western leaders who have been critical of the country's harsh policies and poor track record when it comes to gay rights.
The United States and the European Union have both slashed aid to the country in the last year, citing general concerns over continued human rights abuses. Camara believes that Jammeh's remarks are closely linked to these developments, explaining that the leader has spun the international funding cuts as an affront to the country's religious values that is directly related to its anti-homosexuality laws — not to the reports of widespread human rights abuses such as prison torture, disappearances, and the persecution of political opponents. An estimated 95 percent of the Gambia's population is Muslim, and Camara noted that funding from other Muslim countries has continued despite the human rights concerns.
The Gambia's Foreign Minister Neneh MacDouall-Gaye, a Gambian who lived in the US until her appointment in January, said at an EU event this weekend that the country's government would observe international laws, but would continue to protect religious beliefs and traditions.
"If you read in between the lines, the foreign minister is also trying to say, 'We are not going to accept homosexuality,' " Camara said. "The president already made the Gambians believe that the reason the EU cut funding to him is because of homosexuality."
These are just the latest hostile remarks Jammeh has made about homosexuality as the dictator seeks to maintain his hold on power, which was jeopardized by an attempted coup while he was out of the country on December 30. Last year, in a speech given on the anniversary of his country's independence, Jammeh compared gay people to vermin that should be fought like malaria-causing mosquitos. US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time that he was "deeply troubled" by this rhetoric. In 2008, he threatened to cut off the heads of gays found in the Gambia.
Last September, the country made headlines when its government approved legislation qualifying gay acts as crimes of "aggravated homosexuality" and punishable by life in prison. Homosexuality has long been illegal in the country — a popular tourist destination on the Atlantic coast that is surrounded by Senegal on three of its four sides — with homosexual acts previously carrying maximum sentences of 14 years. The 2014 bill garnered international outcry, but Jammeh dismissed the criticism and signed the bill into law the following October.
The EU cut off $14.5 million in aid to the Gambia just weeks later, citing systematic human rights abuses as members of the gay community reportedly fled to nearby countries like Senegal to avoid persecution. Similarly, the White House expressed deep concern over continued reports of human rights abuses, particularly the targeting of individuals for their perceived sexual orientation.
"We remain concerned about ongoing reports of forced disappearances and arbitrary arrests, including of journalists, human rights advocates, and civil servants, as well as continued calls by senior officials for the persecution of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community," White House Spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said in a statement in December, shortly before the government cut the Gambia out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a long-standing regional trade agreement.
Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, told VICE News that a struggling economy and a need to bolster public support are likely motivating Jammeh's renewed anti-gay vitriol. The leader faces national elections in 2016, and while a win is all but guaranteed, the country's opposition has been notably active in the North Bank Region in recent weeks.
"There is definitely a sinister motive behind President Jammeh's repugnant rhetoric," Smith said. "While he has undoubtedly proven to be a virulently homophobic individual, his comments are also meant to divert attention from Gambia's struggling economy, rising inequality, and the country's decreasing levels of foreign investment."
The Gambia is one of 38 countries across Africa where homosexuality is illegal, and the small nation of less than 2 million people has not gone soft on suspected gay citizens and activists. In November alone, eight people — including women and a 17-year-old boy — were arrested during a government crackdown on homosexuality. The detainees were taken to the headquarters of the feared National Intelligence Agency, where they were told that a device would be inserted into their vagina or anus in order to determine their sexual orientation if they did not confess to being gay, according to Amnesty International.
Some of those arrested in last year's anti-gay operation were reportedly disappeared for weeks without any communication or access to a lawyer. Camara said that three men are still behind bars awaiting trial, unable to pay the $50,000 bail set for their release, adding that as part of their punishment the men are forced to study the Quran, pray five times a day, and are told that they must get married. Their lawyer is currently trying to negotiate their bail.
Both Smith and Camara called on the US government and other world powers to take action against Jammeh in the face of continued human rights abuses. While the government did remove the Gambia from AGOA, activists and Gambian diaspora members have been pushing for strict sanctions against the dictator, particularly on personal bank accounts to curb spending abroad, considering that Jammeh owns a house in Maryland and his daughter reportedly attends school in the US.
"This latest example should both lend credence to what human rights activists have been saying for the past two decades, as well as add momentum to the growing chorus of those calling for visa bans and travel restrictions against President Jammeh," Smith said.
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