Many of the reported 200 detainees released from Gambia’s notorious Mile 2 prison in Banjul are trying to get out of the country as soon as possible in order to avoid being picked up by police again, according to a former Gambian high-ranking official who has had contact with those released.
By Laura Angela Bagnetto
“Many of the people who have been released now are trying to find the quickest way out of the country,” says Amadou Scattred Janneh, an exiled former information minister and member of the opposition Coalition for Change. “They don’t feel secure.”
Some 200 detainees were pardoned as part of Jammeh’s largesse during the 22nd July Revolution official celebrations last Wednesday, marking 21 years since Jammeh grabbed power in a coup d’etat. The detainees, who included political prisoners, drug traffickers, foreigners, and 30 people who were rounded up after the attempted coup d’etat last December.
Part of the fear is that they could be picked up at any time, what Janneh calls the president’s “contradictability.” Jammeh had earlier announced that 85 prisoners were pardoned “in the spirit of Ramadan”, and cited the Bible and the Koran, but had a number of the people released picked up just 24 hours later.
People have “mixed feelings because things are not done rightly, so anything can happen,” says Fatou Jagne Sangor, the head of the West Africa division of Article 19, a human rights group in neighbouring Dakar, Senegal. She spoke to some of the released people and their families who were afraid of talking to the press and said that the re-arrests were fresh in people’s minds.
“Any mistake or any word that you say can bring you trouble. What people do is they just try to be cautious. The only person who can confiscate your freedom and give it back to you is the president, so you have to be cautious and have a low profile,” she adds.
Former minister Janneh says that the pardons came with strings attached—anything they do within the next 10 years can land them back in jail. “And with Jammeh, it could be anything. Because many people were taken to jail without even being taken to trial and they had no idea why they were arrested. It would be very easy for him to come up with trumped-up charges to send some of them back to jail.”
In his speech at Wednesday’s ceremonies, Jammeh said that he would not pardon paedophiles, rapists, and people who had harmed women. Drug traffickers and drug users were pardoned if they were not repeat offenders.
He went into gruesome detail about three people who would not be released—one, a man who had chopped up his wife and tried to eat her, and another who killed his wife and tried to kill his son after she objected to her husband taking another wife. The third involved the murder of a Briton.
“I’ve been in that prison, and from those details he gave, I knew exactly the individuals he was referring to,” says Janneh, who was released from Mile 2 in September 2012 after being found guilty for passing out t-shirts that said ‘End to Dictatorship Now’.
“Two out of the three cases he mentioned are pointless because the two passed away more than two years ago,” he says, adding details from their cases.
“If I don’t forgive, I’m not a good leader,” said Jammeh on Wednesday, adding that he was basing his goodwill on the teachings of Islam and Christianity.
But many families were disappointed on Friday when the prison doors were opened and their loved ones were not released.
“No one should be commending Jammeh,” says Janneh. “Many of these people should not have been in jail in the first place. And there are lots of others who are still in there, who are considered prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, and people who have disappeared and we don’t know their whereabouts,” he says.
Former Gambian foreign minister Sidi Sanneh agrees. Jammeh must account for Gambians who have disappeared.
American citizens “Alhajie Mansour Ceesay and Ebou Jobe, these are two who have not been heard from in over two years. These are two Gambians who disappeared in the boundaries of the Gambia. They have to be accounted for in one form or another by Yahya Jammeh. They are not the only ones,” says Sanneh, who is now based in the US.
Of the Gambians consulted for this article, all mentioned a number of detainees who remain in prison.
Many are United Democratic Party opposition party members, says Sanneh. UDP member Amadou Sanneh is still languishing in jail.
“Nothing was said of him. He was tortured, he was displayed on national television as some of these other prisoners over the past day or two, severely beaten to the point that he could not even speak. It was a horrendous experience and a sight to see. There are a lot of people who have not been accounted for,” he adds.
Jammeh also freed 31 people accused of the December 2014 coup attempt, and their relatives of the accused, who were included in the original arrests. Yusupha Lowe, a 16-year-old-boy who was detained, was also released on Friday. He had been arrested because he is the son of alleged coup plotter Bai Lowe.
Former minister Sanneh says that the bodies of the nine alleged coup plotters who were killed on December 30 have never been returned to their families.
But the real reason why those people have been pardoned, just one week after Jammeh said he was bringing back firing squads to clean out death row, was to make sure he would have access to some form of aid, says the former Gambian diplomat.
He has really brought the country to its knees,” says Sanneh, adding that the European Union has almost 36 million US dollars in escrow, which is being withheld for Gambia’s serious human rights violations.
He says that The Gambia has just one-and-a-half months left to stock up on basic commodities, which will soon become scarce. “It is coming at a time when what we call the hungry season in the country, the rainy season, which is happening about now. If he doesn’t have money to bring in rice, to import flour for bread, and other basic items, he has a problem on his hands.”
Sanneh hopes the European Union will not unblock the funds, especially because he says this is of Jammeh’s own doing, citing his “poor economic policies”. The drought of 2011 added to the people’s misery, and agriculture within the country has suffered ever since.
“He’s been interfering in the free market system put in place in 1986 which had served the country very well. Even when he took power in 1994, he was not as proactive in the monetary policy as he is now,” he says.
Neighbouring countries such as Ghana and Nigeria have benefitted from successful Gambians who have fled.
“And they are in Senegal! Senegal is benefitting from all this. All the comparative advantage we were able to build during the First Republic, Yahya Jammeh has squandered in the last 20 years,” he says.
Part of Jammeh’s quest for cash is making sure he prepares for the upcoming elections in 2016. But the International Monetary Fund has put in place a staff-monitored program to curtail Jammeh’s exorbitant spending. “These local expenditures would have to be pre-approved in Washington by the IMF. So he’s not going to have the freedom he used to have in the past. These are the real reasons why Jammeh is doing what he’s doing now,” says Sanneh.
Whether the EU and the IMF will find the prisoner pardons sufficient to release funds remains to be seen, but countries and human rights non-governmental organisations will continue to put pressure on The Gambia.
The US government is putting out their Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report on Monday that will likely keep The Gambia on its Tier Three Watch List status, according to National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, an anti-trafficking watchdog group. That means countries “do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts” to prevent trafficking.