New legislation in Nigeria that would punish gay and lesbian couples for living together has been condemned by human rights groups in the country and internationally.

In a letter to President Umaru Yar’Adua, leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate, the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission urged them to reject the bill.

Earlier this month the House of Representatives approved the second reading of a bill “to prohibit marriage between persons of same gender.”

The bill would punish people of the same sex who live together “as husband and wife or for other purposes of same sexual relationship” with up to three years of imprisonment.

Anyone who “witnesses, abet[s] and aids” such a relationship could be imprisoned for up to five years.

“This 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 House of Representatives referred the bill to its Committees on Human Rights, Justice, and Women Affairs, which will hold a joint public hearing on it. If the House approves the bill on a third reading, it must then be approved by the Senate and President Yar’Adua.

HRW said the proposed five-year sentence for those who “abet” a same-sex relationship is greater than the punishment stipulated in the bill for those who enter into a “same gender marriage.”

This provision could be used to punish anyone who gives any help or advice to a suspected “same gender” couple – anyone who rents them an apartment, tells them their rights, or approves of their relationships.

Advocates, civil society organisations, and human rights defenders would be ready targets.

Similar concerns were raised in a joint public statement issued by the Nigerian Bar Association Human Rights Institute, Nigerian nongovernmental organisations, and Amnesty International.