Lawmakers in Nigeria are being urged to reject a bill in the Assembly that stretches beyond defining marriage as a heterosexual union to criminalizing gay unions.

The new law would punish gay and lesbian relationships with up to three years of imprisonment if the pair were caught living together. Gay allies are made into criminals as well; anyone who “witnesses, abet[s] and aids” a gay couple living together could face five years of imprisonment.

“The bill masquerades as a law on marriage, but in fact it violates the privacy of anyone even suspected of an intimate relationship with a person of the same sex,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It also threatens basic freedoms by punishing human rights defenders who speak out for unpopular causes.”

The Senate and President Yar'Adua would be obligated to sign off on the bill if it is approved for a third time by the Nigerian House of Representatives. On January 15, the House voted favorably on a second reading of the bill.

Lawmakers say the bill is needed to break the links between “sodomy” and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Nigeria remains in the grip of the HIV pandemic. It has the world's third-largest population of people living with AIDS, but research reveals that 80% of the infected are heterosexual.

Human Right Watch, a world advocate for the rights of economic, sexual and racial minorities, issued a statement on January 27 urging lawmakers to reject the fake gay marriage ban. The group highlighted the fact that heterosexual intercourse remains the main conduit for transmission in the African country and that being gay is already a criminal offense carrying a 14-year jail sentence.

Over 25 leading human rights organizations, including the United Kingdom's Amnesty International and the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a U.S.-based gay-affirming church, have signed onto a letter urging lawmakers to reject the “Same Gender Marriage (Prohibition) Bill 2008,” calling the bill an incitement to homophobia and transphobia.

“This legislation would allow the state to invade people's homes and bedrooms and investigate their private lives, and it would criminalize the work of human rights defenders,” said Gagnon. “It is not a ban on marriage, but an assault on basic rights.”