UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern on Wednesday at a new Nigerian law that criminalizes same-sex relationships, which he fears could fuel prejudice and violence and risks obstructing an effective HIV/AIDS response.

The bill, which contains penalties of up to 14 years in prison and bans gay marriage, same-sex "amorous relationships" and membership of gay rights groups, was passed by the national assembly last May and signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday.

"The Secretary-General fears that the law may fuel prejudice and violence, and notes with alarm reports that police in northern Nigeria have arrested individuals believed by the authorities to be homosexuals, and may even have tortured them," Ban's press office said in a statement.

As in much of sub-Saharan Africa, anti-gay sentiment and persecution of homosexuals is rife in Nigeria, so the new legislation is likely to be popular. Many African countries are seeking to tighten laws against homosexuality.

Under existing Nigerian federal law, sodomy is punishable by jail, but this bill legislates for a much broader crackdown on homosexuals and lesbians, who already live a largely underground existence.

"As UNAIDS and the Global Fund noted in a statement yesterday, the law also risks obstructing effective responses to HIV/AIDS," Ban said.

More than 35 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, which causes AIDS, and 25 million are in sub-Saharan Africa. While some African countries have made progress in combating the disease, Nigeria is among those lagging behind in its response.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)

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