Rights groups have called on Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to reject proposals to penalize "aggravated homosexuality" with a term of life imprisonment, stating that it would add to the climate of fear that lesbian and gay people face in the West African nation.
Homosexual acts are already illegal under the country’s laws. But a new bill passed by parliament would create new charge of "aggravated homosexuality" targeting repeat offenders and people who have sex with someone of the same gender under the age of 18 or with a partner with HIV.
Jammeh has yet to sign the measure — the Criminal Code (Amendment) Act, 2014 — into law and faces pressure from international groups to reject the legislation.
"Gambia's national assembly and the president should not endorse state-sponsored homophobia," said Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for West and Central Africa.
He described the proposal as a "profoundly damaging act that violates international human rights law."
But Jammeh, a former military officer who seized power in a 1994 coup, has shown few signs of bowing to pressure on Gambia’s anti-gay laws. He has repeatedly denounced homosexuality and once vowed to behead gays, although he later retracted the threat.
Last year he told the United Nations General Assembly that "those who promote homosexuality want to put an end to human existence." He added, "It is becoming an epidemic, and we Muslims and Africans will fight to end this behavior."
Jammeh has two weeks to sign the proposals into law or return them for further review.
Under current law, same-sex relationships are punishable by up to 14 years in prison. In 2012, 15 men were arrested in a popular bar and charged with "indecent practices in a public place" — a euphemism for homosexual acts.
In a joint statement, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch said that several provisions of the law "violate international human rights law and amount to persecution on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity."
"This new law will only heap further stigma on people who are already marginalized and living in a climate of deep fear and hate in Gambia," said Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch.
Homosexuality remains taboo in many socially conservative African societies, with some religious groups branding it a corrupting import from the West.
Recent concern from international groups has focused on Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni wants to reissue an anti-gay law rejected by a court. The original version of the legislation, passed in February, punished gay sex with long prison terms and alarmed Western donors, some of whom withheld aid in protest. Uganda's constitutional court overturned it on a technicality in August.
Al Jazeera and wire services