House of Commons,
July 14, 2014
By Dr. Amadou Scattred Janneh
Coordinator, Coalition for Change – The Gambia (CCG)
Madam chairperson, Ms Kathy Clark (Honourable Member of Parliament); my friend and comrade in the struggle, Paul Dillane (Amnesty International); and Jim Boumelha (President of the International Federation of Journalists), of whom I have heard wonderful stories from Gambian journalists about his knowledge of, and dedication to, the course of press freedom in The Gambia; distinguished ladies and gentlemen.
I am truly honored to be once again accorded the opportunity in London to shed light on the human rights situation in The Gambia.
On the eve of this the 20th anniversary of Yahya Jammeh’s usurpation of power through the barrel of a gun, it is appropriate to take stock of the havoc his regime has wrought on The Gambia. In general, the space allowed for political opposition and freedom of expression has, over these 20 years, contracted significantly.
“Human rights defenders, journalists, and political opponents have faced intimidation, harassment, death threats, arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, illtreatment and enforced disappearance, in total impunity” (Draft). Most civil society and media bodies are said to practice self-censorship in “a pervading climate of fear” (Draft).
Even with the existence of constitutional provisions that promote and protect basic freedoms, laws exist that criminalize defamation, severely penalize citizens for providing basic information to public officials, and punish individuals engaged in the dissemination of information critical of the government through digital media. There is considerable variance between The Gambia’s constitutional provisions and the policies and practices of the government.
National bodies such as the Judiciary, the Ombudsman, and the Public Service Commission lack institutional independence resulting in their ineffectiveness and the loss of public confidence in the State. The impact of these anomalies, coupled with the authoritarian character of the regime, has been quite detrimental to the Gambian social and political fabric.
HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS AND VIOLATIONS
An examination of key incidents over the last 20 years will illustrate the decadence of the human rights environment in The Gambia.
• The Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia comes into force. It curtails human rights provisions by making them subject to ill-defined terms such as “public interest” and “public emergency”. The constitution retains the death penalty.
• Gambian security forces open fire on peaceful demonstrators. Fourteen people are killed, including 6 children. No one has been brought to justice.
• Adoption of the Indemnity (amendment) Act 2001 which gives the President power to indemnify any person against prosecution for any act committed to quell an unlawful assembly or other emergency situation. The act deters victims of human rights violations from seeking remedy.
• Journalist Deyda Hydara is killed. To this day, there has been no proper investigation in his death.
• Fifty foreign nationals are killed with the involvement of “rogue” Gambian security forces. No one has been held accountable.
• Journalist Ebrima Manneh is subjected to enforced disappearance. His whereabouts are unknown to this day.
• The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice decides against The Gambia for the enforced disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh.
• President Yahya Jammeh publicly threatens human rights defenders. The African Commission calls on The Gambia to protect journalists and human rights defenders in resolution 145.
• More than 1,000 individuals are taken to secret detention centers in a witch hunt and forced to drink hallucinogenic liquids.
• Women’s Human Rights Defenders Dr. Isatou Touray and Amie Bojang Sissoho are arrested and charged with theft. They are released after nine days of detention and acquitted in 2012.
• The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice decides against the Gambia Government for the arbitrary arrest and torture of journalist Musa Saidykhan.
• Dr Amadou Scattred Janneh, Ndey Tapha Sosseh, and others are charged with treason and sedition in relation with the printing and distribution of 100 tshirts with anti-dictatorship messages. Dr. Janneh is sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor. He is released in 2012 and expelled from the country. Ndey Tapha Sosseh remains outside of The Gambia for safety reasons.
• Arbitrary execution of 9 death row inmates.
• Enforced disappearance and torture of Human Rights Defender Imam Baba Leigh. He was released in May 2013 and fled the country.
• The authorities close down Taranga FM, Daily News and The Standard.
• United Democratic Party activists Amadou Sanneh, Malang Fatty and Alhagie Sambou Fatty are arrested and tortured. They are still in detention.
• TV broadcaster Fatou Camara is arrested and detained incommunicado for almost a month. She fled the country shortly after her release.
• Adoption of Information and Communication (amendment) Act 2013 and Criminal Code (amendment) Act 2013 containing provisions to further muzzle freedom of expression.
• Journalists Musa Sheriff and Sainey Marenah are arrested in January. They are released a couple of days later but their trial is ongoing
• The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice decides against the Gambia Government for its failure to conduct a diligent investigation into the killing of journalist Deyda Hydara.
. Government denies the family of late Buba Michael Baldeh the right to bury him in The Gambia after his death in Senegal in July 2014. He was a prominent dissident and human rights defender.
Human rights defenders concerned about The Gambia have pointed out that “pieces of legislation developed by the [government] since the 1994 coup allow for these violations to happen in all impunity and discourage victims to seek redress” (Draft).
The detestable and deplorable human rights climate in The Gambia continues to largely evade the scrutiny and action it deserves. And with deadly conflicts in Syria, Palestine and Israel, Iraq, and so on competing for international attention, the quest to put the Gambian condition in the spotlight undoubtedly remains an uphill struggle.
In view of Yahya Jammeh’s perennial intransigence, the international community, particularly the European Union and Western countries should institute targeted sanctions such as assets freezes and travel bans on his regime. For the measures to be relaxed or eased, the Gambia government must be required to:
1. Engage in a comprehensive media law reform.
2.. Cooperate with international and regional human rights bodies to improve the situation of freedom of expression and human rights generally in The Gambia.
3. Immediately cease arbitrary arrest, detention and intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders and others.
4. Ensure that all human rights violations committed by the police, the army and the National Intelligence Agency are investigated and that those responsible are brought to justice.
5. Conduct independent and effective investigations into all cases of ill-treatment, torture, and extrajudicial execution.
6. Comply with The Gambia’s obligations under the African Charter, the UN Convention Against Torture, and the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
7. Follow constitutional guidelines in the hiring and firing of judges to guarantee their impartiality.
8. Immediately cease all interference by public officials, including the President, in the judicial process, such as issuing statements that may be detrimental to ongoing cases.
9. Allow independent organizations access to all detention centers.
10. Reform the Prison Act to ensure minimum universal standards for the treatment of prisoners.
11. Establish a permanent moratorium on the death penalty.
12. Release the bodies of the nine death row inmates executed in August 2012 to their relatives.
13. Begin the process to review the desirability or otherwise of the death penalty, as per the 1997 Constitution.
Finally, the window to bringing about peaceful change in The Gambia is shutting rapidly. It is incumbent upon Gambians, friends of The Gambia, and the international community to take decisive action to end repressive rule in the country. Failure to do so with urgency could spell a rapid descent into the type of turmoil that has characterized some of The Gambia’s neighbors.
The time to act decisively is now.
The time to impose targeted sanctions is now.
The time to hold Yahya Jammeh to account is now.
For many of us, our mantra has ultimately become “End Dictatorship in The Gambia, or Die Trying.”
I thank you for your attention.