Despite a presidential pardon, human rights abuses continue in the Gambia
Published: 8 Oct 2015
By: Djibril Balde
On 22 July 2015, to mark the 21st anniversary of his accession to power, President Jammeh announced that he would release approximately 200 detainees in the country. Among those released were all of those who had been convicted of treason between 1994 and 2013 received a presidential pardon. Although the pardon was welcomed by Gambians, the act was also viewed with scepticism in a context where human rights abuses are rife. For instance, Amadou Scattred Janneh, an exiled former information minister and member of the opposition Coalition for Change, told RFI that “[m]any of the people who have been released now are trying to find the quickest way out of the country because they don’t feel secure.” Many have fled to Senegal, where a number have gone to the IRRI offices to seek assistance. The stories they have told demonstrate that their release, while welcome, has only led to an ongoing lack of safety for themselves and their families.
For example, two young Gambians had been detained for six months at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) headquarters in Banjul because a relative of theirs was involved in the failed December 2014 coup. They were severely tortured during their interrogation. They were among those who were eventually pardoned, but decided to leave the Gambia because they were afraid of being rearrested by NIA agents. They succeeded in escaping the country, avoiding security force check points as they left, and are presently in Senegal where IRRI has assisted them in applying for asylum and has also referred them to other partner organisations for medical treatment needed as a result of their torture and detention.
Another Gambian, a former soldier sentenced to death who had also benefited from the presidential pardon, told IRRI why he had subsequently fled to Senegal:
I have benefited from the presidential pardon but I do not trust President Jammeh, he is unpredictable. I can be rearrested at any time, I worked in the Gambian armed forces and I know what he is capable of doing. Because of this situation I decided to leave the country. I heard that we who have been pardoned are not allowed to renew our identification cards, driver’s license, passport or any other travel documents. Today all my papers have expired. I consider all these practices of President Jammeh as human rights violations. We don’t even have freedom of movement. I am today here in Senegal to seek for protection.
He is also undergoing medical treatment for torture suffered in the Gambia, and is just one of many pardoned detainees who are discreetly leaving the Gambia to go to Senegal for fear of being rearrested. IRRI was also told of another former soldier, who was incarcerated in relation to the failed coup in March 2006, and was also one of those granted pardon, was rearrested and held for several days before being released. On his way to Dakar for medical treatment, he was intercepted by the police at the Gambian border. He was not allowed to leave the country and, according to a relative, is presently under surveillance.
Not surprisingly, many Gambians do not trust President Jammeh due to his history of strong arm tactics and inconsistency since he came to power in 1994. A Gambian journalist with whom IRRI spoke said that the pardon granted by President Jammeh is due to the strong pressure of the international community exercised on him, on issues of arbitrary arrest and detention. Moreover, the European Union and some donors have significantly reduced their funding to the Gambia on account of the country’s poor human rights record. He also believes that the visit of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment played an important role in obtaining this gesture on the part of the President, through his report on the issue (See IRRI’s previous post on the report) . Another Gambian interviewed by IRRI argued that this clemency was politically motivated because the presidential elections are scheduled for 2016. He claims that President Jammeh knows he is unpopular now in Gambia and is trying to regain the trust of Gambians with the pardon. He characterised the act as a purely political strategy.
Of course, and regardless of the motivation, for those that have been released, the pardon is welcomed. However, it is important that the international community and donors continue to put pressure on President Jammeh to stop abusive arrests and detentions, otherwise their release is no more than an empty gesture. They should encourage him not only to improve national laws so that they are in line with the principles of human rights, but to ensure the implementation of those laws.