London — The central African country is the 70th country to ban consensual same-sex relations
Gabon has passed a law against gay sex, becoming the 70th country to ban the practice, an official confirmed, as the global pace of reform falters.
The central African country banned "sexual relations between people of the same sex" in a new penal code earlier this year, according to copies of the law online.
A government official who declined to be named confirmed the change, which happened in July but was not widely reported. The minister of justice declined to comment.
Davis Mac-Iyalla, an activist who monitors LGBT+ rights in West Africa, said he had spoken to two Gabonese men arrested under the new law who had to bribe police to be released.
"It has further sent the LGBT community underground and has created harassment," said Mac-Iyalla of the Ghana-based Interfaith Diversity Network of West Africa.
"The corrupt police now use that, arrest people and then people have to bribe their way out."
These reports could not be independently confirmed.
Confirmation of the change, which introduced a penalty of up to six months in prison and a fine of 5 million CFA francs ($8,521), came at the end of a mixed year for LGBT+ rights.
Hopes for more reforms were raised last year when India's Supreme Court decriminalised gay sex, overturning a colonial-era law and spurring campaigners to press for similar reforms in other former British colonies.
When Botswana decriminalised gay sex in June, the number of countries outlawing same-sex relations fell to 69, according to LGBT+ advocacy group ILGA World - the lowest figure since it started monitoring such laws in 2006.
But large populations of religious conservatives, including growing numbers of Evangelical Christians, are opposed to LGBT+ rights in African countries including Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria.
In May, a Kenyan court upheld a law criminalising gay sex dating back to British rule. Advocates are challenging that ruling.
There are legal cases challenging bans on same-sex relations under way or planned in countries including Singapore, Mauritius and six nations in the Caribbean, according to ILGA World.
"Globally ... we're seeing polarising tensions," said Lucas Ramon Mendos, a researcher at ILGA World.
"Where things are getting better, there is a momentum for even more improvement, and where things are bad now we're seeing things are worsening."
At least 35 countries have prosecuted LGBT+ people for same-sex intimacy in the last two years, according to ILGA World research - 28 in 2018 and 17 so far in 2019.
"The decrease in countries from 2018 to 2019 can hardly be read as a positive sign," Ramon Mendos said. "We think there is a huge number of cases flying under our radars."
In Africa, 33 out of 54 countries criminalise consensual same-sex relations. Six African countries have scrapped their bans since 2012, marking a positive trend overall, said Neela Ghoshal, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"It's unfortunate that a lot of African countries have claimed and owned those homophobic, colonial values, but others haven't," she said.
"In general, across the continent, things are moving more in the right direction than in the wrong direction ... I'm guessing you'll see a lot of change in the next 10 years or so."
- Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Claire Cozens