When 12-year-old Teresa had her first kiss at a party in London with another girl, the young Gambian had no idea how her sexual orientation would make life an everyday struggle when she returned home.
Eight years later, she is on the run from Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s men in black, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), who have put her at the top of a list of 200 homosexuals to arrest and imprison under new anti-gay laws passed by the government in October.
“I know a lot of people. The idea is that if they get me, they can torture me and I’ll then give them the names of other lesbians and gays,” Teresa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Dakar where she is seeking asylum.
Teresa and a friend managed to escape when a police officer tipped her off that the NIA was about to intensify its search for homosexuals. Since the crackdown started on Nov 7, the NIA has arrested at least nine lesbians and five gays, according to Amnesty International.
Jammeh drew international condemnation at the U.N. General Assembly last year by attacking gay rights as a threat to humanity. He later described gays as vermin and said his government will fight them like malaria-causing mosquitoes.
The law targets those with a previous conviction for homosexuality, those living with HIV, and same-sex partners of people with disabilities – all of whom could be imprisoned for life.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on Thursday the law violates fundamental human rights – among them the right to privacy, to freedom from discrimination and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.
“I call on The Gambia to fulfil its international obligations to promote and protect the human rights of all persons without discrimination, to repeal all provisions of the Criminal Code that criminalise relations between consenting adults and to put in place an immediate moratorium on arrests on the basis of such laws,” he said in a statement.
Although three of the women were released on Nov 13, they remain under investigation and the NIA has confiscated their identity cards and ordered them not to leave the country.
NEVER GOING BACK
After a month on the road, begging for food and accommodation in Senegal, Teresa, who didn’t want to disclose her real name, considered going back to Gambia. However, two more arrests of close friends on Sunday have changed her mind.
“I am never going back!” said Teresa, even though Senegal too has strong anti-gay laws. “At least in Senegal they press charges and release you. In the Gambia, you’ll rot inside a jail for years and nobody will listen to your case.”
Francois Patuel, West Africa campaigner for Amnesty, said that the Presidential Guard and the NIA were holding prisoners without charge as well as beating and torturing homosexuals to force a confession.
“The NIA have beaten prisoners, put them in a room without lights or windows, and told them if they did not confess, a device would be forced into their anus or vagina to test their sexual orientation,” Patuel said.
The crackdown comes two weeks before the European Union decides whether to release 150 million euros ($186 million) worth of development aid for the West African nation, a matter that has been up for debate because of its poor human rights record.
Patuel said Gambia could no longer revert to anti-Western rhetoric, as there was now a resolution by the African Commission to protect people on the basis of their sexual orientation against violence and other rights violations.
Brazil and Argentina also expressed concern about state sponsored homophobia during a recent U.N. review of human rights in Gambia, adding pressure on the government to stop the persecution of gays.
The Gambian authorities could not be reached for comment.