Refugees’ testimonies support the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture’s report on the Gambia
Published: 9 Apr 2015
By: Djibril Balde
On 16 March 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan Mendez, released the report of his November 2014, visit to the Gambia. Torture is a crime under Section 21 of the Gambian constitution as well as a result of the ratification of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (although it has not yet deposited its instruments of ratification for the latter with the UN Secretary General). Yet the Special Rapporteur found that a number of practices in the Gambia violate international legal standards with regard to the prevention and punishment of torture. Indeed the report finds there is a regular practice of torture carried out by the NIA (National Intelligence Agency): “The mistreatment inflicted was normally of short duration, consisting mainly of physical trauma caused by punches, slapping and blows with objects such as canes or batons and burns.” (Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan Ernesto Mendez – Addendum – Mission to Gambia, para 25)
Since 2010, IRRI has interviewed more than 113 Gambian refugees in and around Dakar, Senegal and their credible and consistent stories corroborate many of the findings of the Special Rapporteur’s report and suggest that torture is particularly prevalent in NIA custody, that it often occurs in “unofficial” places of detention, and that impunity for torture prevails.
Although he was unable to independently verify the existence of “unofficial” places of detention, the Rapporteur notes that he:
heard testimonies and received corroboration from a number of reliable sources that there are also “unofficial” places of detention in The Gambia. This includes secret cells in military barracks, NIA and NDEA Headquarters, prisons, and police stations, particularly in remote areas. He also received numerous testimonies that referred to a “Bambidinka” or crocodile pond which is reportedly a “dungeon” of small, dark and isolated holding cells in the ground, reportedly at Jeshwang prison and NIA Headquarters. (para 38)
Consistent with these reports, in March 2015 a Gambian journalist and asylum seeker in Senegal told IRRI that he was arrested from his house by five national security agents, blindfolded, and taken to an unknown location for interrogation. During the interrogation he was hit on his forehead but was unable to tell what weapon was used because of the blindfold and he continued to receive severe beatings throughout the day. He was released after one day in detention and warned:
You think we don’t know what you’re up to? We know that you are supplying information to opposition and enemies of the Gambia abroad. You know what happens to people who can’t stay out of the government’s business. If you don’t silence yourself, we will come back for you. When we do, will be different from this time.
He later fled the Gambia to Senegal, where he applied for refugee status, and sought medical treatment for the injuries sustained during the torture. The effects of abuse on his body are plainly evident.
Another asylum seeker also interviewed by IRRI in March 2015, reported having experienced a phenomenon also noted by the Special Rapporteur in which those subject to torture in NIA custody are transferred after some time into police custody. This individual, a former member of the Gambian National Army, told IRRI that he was dismissed and arrested in 2009 for disobeying orders and insubordination because he refused to participate in government efforts to use soldiers to suppress the opposition and the media. Later, he joined the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP). During, the presidential elections of 2011, security agents arrested him again and took him to the NIA headquarters in Banjul for interrogation. He was tortured for a week by NIA personnel and masked soldiers, before being transferred to the state prison, where he was further tortured.
He claims that that whilst handcuffed, he was suffocated with plastic bags, electrocuted, severely beaten, and starved for several weeks. Eventually, he collapsed and only then was he taken to the Royal Victoria hospital in Banjul, where he received medical treatment. Some days later, at around 4.00am, he escaped from the hospital while the police officer on guard was sleeping. With the help of fishermen, he crossed the river by boat and trekked on foot through the bush to enter Senegal. He is now living in Senegal as an asylum seeker but is suffering from psychological problems as a result of his detention and torture.
As noted in the Special Rapporteur’s report, reports of torture have continued unabated. As discussed in a previous blog, an attempted coup d’etat in the Gambia on 30 December 2014 led to a significant crackdown in the Gambia. According to the Special Rapporteur, in early January “it was reported that at least fifty-two individuals (civilian and military personnel), some of them family members of the insurgents, were being held and their whereabouts is unknown; they may be at unofficial places of detention and at great risk of being tortured” (para 14). IRRI has heard similar stories. Recently, a family member of one of the soldiers allegedly involved in the failed coup was arrested and detained for one week in an unofficial detention centre. After having fled to Senegal, he reported that national security agents beat him and threatened him with death during interrogation. He reports that he was released following the investigation about the failed coup attempt, and was subsequently cleared, but was warned to be careful of to whom he spoke and that even if he ran to Senegal he would still be monitored.
Many Gambians have welcomed the visit and report of the Special Rapporteur. One Gambian human rights defender told IRRI that the visit was a step in the right direction to fight torture. He appreciated the detailed nature of the report and its recommendations, expressing the importance that the latter be implemented to the letter by the government of the Gambia. In particular he pointed to the recommendation that the government “[a]ccelerate the review of the National Human Rights Commission Bill, 2014 that is before the National Assembly to ensure that it will be an independent and impartial institution, established in accordance with the principles relating to the status of national institutions (the Paris Principles)”. Such a commission would be vital in monitoring the human rights situation. He further emphasised that torture is a serious crime, both in the Gambian constitution and Article 1 of the Convention against Torture and those who carry it out should be punished by law.
It is clear that the report is just the first step in addressing the issue of torture in the Gambia. The report ends with five pages of recommendations, laying out a strong plan of action for addressing torture in the Gambia. It is essential that the international community, including African state and non-state actors, ECOWAS, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and respective African organs mobilise and put pressure on the Gambia to implement the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur. In addition, IRRI recommends that all of these be implemented, but with particular urgency:
1) Revise the law to strengthen protection against torture: While the prohibition against torture is included in the constitution of the Gambia, additional provisions should be introduced to clarify that that this right is absolute and non-derogable. Torture should also be established as an offence in national law, defined in accordance with Article 1 of the Convention against Torture and the criminal procedure code should be amended to make clear that any evidence obtained as a result of torture will not be admissible in court.
2) Set up a National Human Rights Commission and other mechanisms to investigate and punish acts of torture and other allegations of human rights abuses.
3) Close all unofficial places of detention as the mere existence of such facilities is a violation of international law.