Activist freed – journalist still missing in The Gambia

A Gambian activist detained by the authorities after peacefully expressing his views has been released – but there is still no news about a journalist missing for seven years, Amnesty International says.

Imam Baba Leigh, a prominent Muslim cleric and activist, was freed after being held for more than five months at an unknown location after he publicly condemned the execution of nine inmates at Mile II prison in August 2012.

He was arrested on 3 December 2012 by two National Intelligence Agency officers and told he was being taken to their headquarters for questioning.

Imam Baba Leigh was effectively disappeared. He was never charged with a crime, was not brought before a court and during his time in detention and was not allowed contact with a lawyer or his family. Amnesty International adopted him as a Prisoner of Conscience.

The reason for his release is unknown, but media reports indicate he was pardoned by the President.

In 2009, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information expressed concern about threats made by President Yayah Jammeh against Imam Leigh, who had criticized the President.

“Tragically, the story of Imam Baba Leigh is not unusual in the Gambia where the authorities seem to be carrying out a campaign of illegal arrests, harassment, and death threats against anyone who dares to speak up on human rights,” said Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, West-Africa researcher at Amnesty International.

Journalists, lawyers and human rights activists have been the targets of a new wave of arrests and harassments by the authorities that intensified after the August executions last year.

The authorities have particularly targeted those who have spoken out against the execution of the nine inmates at Mile II prison – the first executions in the country in 30 years. Others have been detained after criticizing other government policies or authorities.

Ebrima Manneh, a reporter with the then opposition newspaper Daily Observer was detained by government agents in 2006. He has not been seen since. His whereabouts are still unknown.

Manneh has never been charged with a crime and the government denies having him in their custody. The government recently claimed he had been seen in the USA, but his family vehemently denied these reports. He is still listed on the Interpol website as a missing person.

“The disappearance of Manneh is extremely worrying. For years no one has seen him or heard from him. Many fear he is now dead but until the government reveals what happened, we may never know his fate,” said Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus.

Several other high-profile individuals have been targeted and arrested, often without being charged with a recognizable crime. Some have been detained for longer than the constitutionally allowed period of 72 hours without being brought before a court, or have been released on onerous bail conditions and ordered to report daily to the security forces.