The human rights situation in Gambia has deteriorated sharply during President Yahya Jammeh’s 21st year in power, said Amnesty International on the anniversary of his 1994 coup d’état.
The climate of fear which has blighted the lives of Gambians for more than two decades worsened over the last 12 months with journalists, people perceived to be gay or lesbian, and those considered to be opponents of the regime and their families increasingly targeted.Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher.
“A severe backlash following December’s failed coup attempt has seen a spike in the numbers of arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances. In a further worrying step, last Friday President Jammeh stated that those on death row should expect to have their sentences carried out.”
Since January 2015, dozens of friends and relatives of people accused of involvement in a coup in December 2014 have been detained incommunicado, while the Government has refused to acknowledge their detention and to provide information on their whereabouts. Those detained include women, elderly people, and a child, and many are believed to be unwell.
Targeting of journalists and human rights defenders
Arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists and human rights defenders continue to be common practice in Gambia. On 2 July 2015 Alhagie Ceesay, the managing director of Teranga radio station, was detained and held incommunicado for 12 days. There are concerning reports about his health following his release.
Torture and prison conditions
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture issued a report in March 2015 citing the prevalence of torture in the country and expressing concerns over prison conditions. He noted that “the nature of the torture is brutal and includes very severe beatings with hard objects or electrical wires; electrocution, asphyxiation by placing a plastic bag over the head and filling it with water and burning with hot liquid”.
In November 2014, the UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Extra-Judicial Executions were refused access to the Security Wing of Mile 2 prison, where death row prisoners and others sentenced to long prison terms are held.
On 17 July, President Jammeh indicated that executions will be resumed. He has also announced plans to broaden the scope of the death penalty to whenever the sentence is prescribed by law. Currently death sentences can only be passed where there is violence, or use of a toxic substance, that leads to death. This will reverse his 2012 announcement of a conditional moratorium on executions.
On 30 March, a military court handed down death sentences against three soldiers and sentenced three others to life imprisonment for their alleged involvement in the December 2014 coup. The trial was held in secret, with media and independent observers barred from observing.
Crackdown on the basis of perceived sexual orientation
In October 2014 a new law was passed introducing life sentences for the offence of “aggravated homosexuality”. The following month Amnesty International documented that at least eight people were arrested and tortured on suspicion of “homosexuality”.
Disregard for international human rights framework
Gambia has ignored calls by the international community to conduct a joint independent investigation into the aftermath of the coup, most notably ignoring the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights resolution in February seeking an invitation to conduct a fact-finding mission.
In April, the government of Gambia rejected 78 of the 171 recommendations at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva. Among them were recommendations on unjustified restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, enforced disappearances, the death penalty and the use of torture to stifle dissent.
Need for change
The political and economic situation has resulted in a steep rise in migration from Gambia, with migrants undertaking perilous journeys to reach Europe. A report by Frontex indicates that in 2014 Gambia was in the top six originating countries entering Europe illegally by sea despite having one of the smallest populations in the region.
Amnesty International is calling on the government of Gambia to release all those detained unlawfully, unless they are charged with recognizable criminal offences and undergo fair trials, and to release all prisoners of conscience. The organization also calls on Gambia to put an end to the use of torture and repression of human rights defenders and journalists.
After 21 years of repressive rule, human rights violations in Gambia are increasing. The international community and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have a duty to address Gambia’s declining human rights record in order to protect people in the country and to avoid instability in the regionSabrina Mahtani.