Human rights abuses in the Gambia – home to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

Published: 6 Sep 2012
By: Djibril Balde

Under the leadership of Dawda Kairaba Jawara, the Gambia was known as a stable and democratic country where people could enjoy basic rights. However, since Yaha Jammeh came to power in a coup d’etat in July 1994, a lot has changed. Now, many human rights defenders, journalists, political opposition leaders and people who do not support the policies of the president are considered enemies of the State and have been exposed to abuses by the regime.

So what does this mean in practice? For a start, freedom of press is severely restricted. In December 2004, Deyda Haidara, the editor and co-founder of the independent newspaper, The Point, was shot dead in his car by an unidentified gunman. Chief Ebrima Manneh, a journalist with the Daily Observer, was arrested by the National Intelligent Agency (NIA) immediately after the African Union Summit in Banjul in 2006. He, along with a number of other journalists, were accused of disputing the event, and he has not been seen since then. Although the Gambian authorities deny arresting and detaining him, in 2008 the ECOWAS court ruled that the arrest and detention of Chief Ebrima Manneh was illegal and ordered the Gambian authorities to release him immediately. In  response, President Jammeh said that Ebrima Manneh might have disappeared after attempting to illegally migrate to Europe or the United States. And this is just one of numerous other instances of arbitrary arrest and detention that have been documented.

President Jammeh also publicly threatened human rights defenders in 2009, saying “what I want to make clear to everybody and those so-called human rights campaigners is that I will never allow anyone to destabilise this country. We are not going to condone people posing as human rights defenders to the detriment of the country. If you are affiliated with a human rights group, rest assured your security and personal safety would not be guaranteed by my government and we are ready to kill saboteurs.” Today, many Gambian human rights defenders and journalists are living in exile as refugees.

Refugees have also been targeted. In March 2012, five refugee leaders from Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Sierra Leone and Senegal were arrested and detained for four months in the Gambia. They were accused of spreading inaccurate and false information about UNHCR, following writing a letter complaining about the lack of assistance, and of nepotism within UNHCR and its implementing partner, GAFNA. They were freed without charge and fled to Senegal with their families, where they are presently seeking asylum.

In 2008, President Jammeh had threatened to cut off the head of any homosexual caught in his country the Gambia. After pressure from international human rights organisations he retracted his decision and said that homosexuals should be expelled from the country. Sure enough, in April 2012, fifteen men were arrested in the Gambia on suspicion of being gay. After almost three months they were acquitted for lack of evidence. Since then, five of them fled to Senegal where they are presently seeking asylum since the beginning of August.

President Jammeh then announced during the Muslim feast of Eid al-fitr that his government would begin implementing the death penalty in September 2012. About 47 people have been sentenced to death since July 2010. Nine detainees including two Senegalese – a woman and a man – were executed on Sunday 26 August 2012. He is planning to execute sixteen other detainees in the coming days. Meanwhile, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment is still practiced in the Gambia.

Not surprisingly, many Gambians have fled the country as a result of this catalogue of abuses. For instance Senegal is currently host to a number of Gambian journalists, members of the opposition, and soldiers suspected by Jammeh of planning a coup d’etat. Yet even in Senegal they are not safe: the Gambian National Intelligent Agency operates in Senegal in order to kidnap these people who are looking protection.

Therefore it is time for the African and international community to put pressure on Jammeh to stop these human rights violations. The new ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda – who herself is a Gambian and was a former Minister of Justice under Jammeh – should send a mission to investigate the atrocities committed by Jammeh’s regime. In addition, the African Union should relocate the headquarters of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights from the Gambia: it is a cruel irony that this Commission continues to function in a country where human rights are being so blatantly violated. And civil society needs to unequivocally denounce what is happening in Gambia and demand justice for its victims.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement
Regions: Western Africa, Gambia
Type: IRRI Blog