Day of Action takes place for freedom in Gambia

A “Day of Action” for the people of Gambia will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday in 12 different locations around the world including West Africa, US, UK and EU. The demonstrations, organised by Amnesty International together with  partner organisations in West Africa, coincides with a national Gambian holiday on 22 July called “Freedom Day”, celebrating when President Yahya Jammeh came into power in 1994.

Since then, the government has stifled political and social dissent. Serious human rights violations have been committed by the National Intelligence Agency, police and army.

The Amnesty International report “Gambia: Fear Rules”, published in November 2008, raised the cases of at least 30 people who have been detained without charge or unlawfully imprisoned after unfair trials since March 2006. Many have been tortured or ill-treated, disappeared, died in custody or died shortly after release.

The human rights situation in the country has worsened since the last foiled attempted coup plot in March 2006.

Journalists have been detained and unlawfully arrested if suspected of providing information to news sources and for writing stories unfavourable to the authorities. Newspapers, including internet based ones, have also been closed down or been hacked into. Journalists and members of the opposition are frequently harassed, threatened, and unlawfully killed.

Two cases involving Gambian journalists have been brought to the attention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Community Court of Justice since 2006. Daily Observer journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh remains a victim of enforced disappearance for three years despite the Court’s ruling demanding that he be released and damages be paid to his family.

The former editor of The Independent newspaper, Musa Saidykhan’s, alleges that he was tortured by the NIA in 2006.

In June 2009, seven journalists were unlawfully detained and were then placed on trial for sedition after criticizing President Yahya Jammeh who said that the government was not involved in the unsolved murder of Deydra Hydara, former editor of The Point newspaper, in 2004. Since 1994, at least 27 journalists have left Gambia, more than half of them in the last two years, and at least 10 have been granted asylum elsewhere.

In March 2009, Amnesty International reported that in Foni Kansala district near Kanilai-the President’s village-over 1,000 people were kidnapped from their villages and accused of “witchcraft.” They were  taken to secret detention centresand were reportedly forced to drink hallucinogenic concoctions and to confess to being witches.

The liquid they were forced to drink appeared to lead to kidney problems and to at least six deaths from kidney failure. A well-known opposition leader, Halifa Sallah, wrote articles for Forayaa, the main opposition newspaper in Gambia, and criticised the government’s “witchcraft” accusations. He was detained, charged with treason and held in Mile 2 Central Prison. After significant outside pressure, all charges were dropped and he was released.   

Migrants and visitors are also subjected to unlawful arrests, torture and ill-treatment by the security forces. In July 2005 a group of 50 foreigners, including 44 Ghanaians, were detained and reportedly killed by members of Gambian security forces. A recent report carried out jointly by ECOWAS and the UN determined that rogue security forces were responsible. So far, the Gambian government has not taken any steps to bring the perpetrators to justice.   

Amnesty International is encouraging all members of civil society in Africa to join together on 22 July 2009 to call on the Gambian government to uphold its people’s basic rights and freedoms.