Amnesty calls for Gambia to end 'homophobic' arrests

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh addresses the UN General Assembly in New York on September 25, 2014 (AFP Photo/DON EMMERT) (AFP/File)

Dakar (AFP) - Amnesty International accused The Gambia on Tuesday of torturing citizens arrested in the latest crackdown on homosexuality in the conservative west African nation.

The campaign group said the country's spy agency and presidential guard had beaten and forced confessions from five men, including a 17-year-old, and three women since November 7.

"These arrests took place amid an intensifying climate of fear for those perceived to have a different sexual orientation or gender identity," Steve Cockburn, Amnesty's deputy director for west Africa said in a statement.

"This unacceptable crackdown reveals the scale of state-sponsored homophobia in Gambia."

The women were released last week, said Amnesty, but the men are being held at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) headquarters in the capital Banjul.

They were told they were under investigation for "homosexuality", Amnesty said, adding that they had not been charged and had been denied a lawyer.

"They were subjected to torture and ill-treatment to force them to confess their so called 'crimes' and to reveal information about other individuals perceived to be gay or lesbian," the statement said.

The torture included beatings, sensory deprivation and the threat of rape, Amnesty said.

The organisation says the NIA is reportedly collating a list of names for future arrests and several targets escaped after being tipped off by relatives.

The Gambia's treatment of gays has long drawn criticism from international observers, who accuse the country, the smallest on the African mainland, of homophobia.

The parliament passed a bill on August 25 to introduce a punishment of life in prison for "aggravated homosexuality" targeting "repeat offenders" and people living with HIV.

President Yahya Jammeh has repeatedly denounced homosexuality and in 2008 even vowed to behead gays, a threat he later retracted.

Two weeks ago The Gambia refused United Nations monitors investigating summary executions and torture access to its prisons.